By: SPACE.com Staff
Published: 08/30/2012 09:30 AM EDT on SPACE.com

NASA's Cassini probe has beamed home stunning images of Saturn and Titan, the ringed planet's largest moon.

The new natural-color Cassini photos, which were unveiled Wednesday (Aug. 29), capture the Saturn system as it undergoes a seasonal shift. The ringed planet and its many moons look quite different today than they did when Cassini arrived on the scene eight years ago, researchers said.

"As the seasons have advanced, and spring has come to the north and autumn to the south throughout the Saturn system, the azure blue in the northern winter Saturnian hemisphere that greeted Cassini upon its arrival in 2004 is now fading; and it is now the southern hemisphere, in its approach to winter, that is taking on a bluish hue," Cassini imaging team leader Carolyn Porco, of the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo., said in a statement.

"This change is likely due to the reduced intensity of ultraviolet light and the haze it produces in the hemisphere approaching winter, and the increasing intensity of ultraviolet light and haze production in the hemisphere approaching summer," Porco added. [More Spectacular Photos of Saturn by Cassini]

One of the photos showcases Saturn, its rings and Titan, which at 3,200 miles (5,150 kilometers) wide is larger than the planet Mercury. The edge-on ring system forms a thin line directly behind the huge moon while its shadow projects a series of dark bands onto the planet's southern half.

Another photo shows Titan's south polar vortex — an odd mass of swirling gas that Cassini noticed earlier this year — in clear and dramatic detail. The formation of the vortex is likely related to the seasonal changes occurring on Saturn, Titan and its other moons, scientists have said.

The last photo shows a circle of light around Titan, making the haze-shrouded moon look like a dazzling ring floating in the blackness of space. The effect is created by sunlight scattering through the periphery of Titan's thick, nitrogen-dominated atmosphere, researchers said.

Cassini launched in 1997 and has been studying Saturn and its rings and moons since it arrived in orbit around the planet in 2004. Cassini's primary mission ended in 2008, but the probe's activities have been extended twice, most recently through 2017. 

NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency have worked together on the mission over the years.

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  • A crescent Enceladus appears with Saturn's rings in this Cassini spacecraft view of the moon.

  • With giant Saturn hanging in the blackness and sheltering Cassini from the sun's blinding glare, the spacecraft viewed the rings as never before, revealing previously unknown faint rings and even glimpsing its home world.

  • This is an artist's concept of the Saturnian plasma sheet based on data from Cassini magnetospheric imaging instrument. It shows Saturn's embedded 'ring current,' an invisible ring of energetic ions trapped in the planet's magnetic field. Saturn is at the center, with the red 'donut' representing the distribution of dense neutral gas outside Saturn's icy rings. Beyond this region, energetic ions populate the plasma sheet to the dayside magnetopause filling the faintly sketched magnetic flux tubes to higher latitudes and contributing to the ring current. The plasma sheet thins gradually toward the nightside. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL

  • A quartet of Saturn's moons, from tiny to huge, surround and are embedded within the planet's rings in this Cassini composition.

  • This stunning false-color view of Saturn's moon Hyperion reveals crisp details across the strange, tumbling moon's surface. Differences in color could represent differences in the composition of surface materials. The view was obtained during Cassini's very close flyby on Sept. 26, 2005. Hyperion has a notably reddish tint when viewed in natural color. The red color was toned down in this false-color view, and the other hues were enhanced, in order to make more subtle color variations across Hyperion's surface more apparent.

  • The colorful globe of Saturn's largest moon, Titan, passes in front of the planet and its rings in this true color snapshot from NASA's Cassini spacecraft.

  • Vertical structures, among the tallest seen in Saturn's main rings, rise abruptly from the edge of Saturn's B ring to cast long shadows on the ring in this image taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft two weeks before the planet's August 2009 equinox. Part of the Cassini Division, between the B and the A rings, appears at the top of the image, showing ringlets in the inner division.

  • Flying past Saturn's moon Dione, Cassini captured this view which includes two smaller moons, Epimetheus and Prometheus, near the planet's rings.

  • Data from NASA's Cassini spacecraft show that the sizes and patterns of dunes on Saturn's moon Titan vary as a function of altitude and latitude. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech, and NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

  • Saturn's small, potato-shaped moon Prometheus appears embedded within the planet's rings near the center of this Cassini spacecraft view while the larger moon Mimas orbits beyond the rings.

  • The line of Saturn's rings disrupts the Cassini spacecraft's view of the moons Tethys and Titan.

  • Although traveling at great speed, the Cassini spacecraft managed to capture this close view of Saturn's small moon Helene during a flyby on March 3, 2010. Saturn's atmosphere makes up the background of this composition.

  • The Cassini spacecraft looks at a brightly illuminated Enceladus and examines the surface of the leading hemisphere of this Saturnian moon.

  • Saturn's third-largest moon Dione can be seen through the haze of its largest moon, Titan, in this view of the two posing before the planet and its rings from NASA's Cassini spacecraft.

  • Saturn's moon Mimas peeks out from behind the night side of the larger moon Dione in this Cassini image captured during the spacecraft's Dec. 12, 2011, flyby of Dione.

  • A quintet of Saturn's moons come together in the Cassini spacecraft's field of view for this portrait.

  • The best view of Saturn's rings in the ultraviolet indicates there is more ice toward the outer part of the rings, than in the inner part, hinting at the origins of the rings and their evolution.

  • NASA's Cassini spacecraft obtained this unprocessed image on Dec. 12, 2011.

  • Recent Cassini images of Saturn's moon Enceladus backlit by the sun show the fountain-like sources of the fine spray of material that towers over the south polar region. The image was taken looking more or less broadside at the 'tiger stripe' fractures observed in earlier Enceladus images. It shows discrete plumes of a variety of apparent sizes above the limb of the moon. The greatly enhanced and colorized image shows the enormous extent of the fainter, larger-scale component of the plume.

  • NASA's Cassini spacecraft obtained this unprocessed image on Dec. 12, 2011.

  • Saturn sits nested in its rings of ice as Cassini once again plunges toward the graceful giant. This natural color mosaic was acquired by the Cassini spacecraft as it soared 39 degrees above the unilluminated side of the rings.