By: SPACE.com Staff
Published: 09/29/2012 09:13 AM EDT on SPACE.com
Saturn's southern reaches are draped in the shadow of the huge planet's iconic ring system in a spectacular new picture from NASA's Cassini spacecraft.
The near-infrared photo, which Cassini snapped on June 15, looks toward the southern, unlit side of Saturn's rings from 14 degrees below the ringplane, researchers said. The spacecraft was about 1.8 million miles (2.9 million kilometers) from Saturn at the time; the image scale is 11 miles (17 km) per pixel.
Saturn's ice-covered moon Enceladus, which is 313 miles (504 km) wide, is visible as a tiny, bright speck in the lower lefthand corner of the image.
Many researchers regard Enceladus as one of the best bets in our solar system to host life beyond Earth. Though surface temperatures on the moon are frigid, Enceladus is believed to harbor a vast ocean of liquid water beneath its icy shell.
Enceladus also boasts huge amounts of internal heat, which power a system of geysers that erupt from the moon's south polar regions. Cassini discovered these geysers in 2005 and has snapped many photos of them since.
The $3.2 billion Cassini mission is a collaboration involving NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The spacecraft launched in 1997 and arrived at Saturn in 2004. It has been studying the ringed planet and its many moons ever since, and should continue to do so for years to come; the Cassini mission has been extended to at least 2017.
In early 2005, Cassini's Huygens lander, an ESA probe, touched down on the enormous moon Titan and relayed the first photos ever from the surface of that intriguing world.
Titan has a thick, nitrogen-dominated atmosphere and a weather system based on methane and ethane, which have pooled to form lakes in various places across the moon's surface.
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NASA's Cassini spacecraft has recently resumed the kind of orbits that allow for spectacular views of Saturn's rings. This view, from Cassini's imaging camera, shows the outer A ring and the F ring. This image was obtained on May 23, 2012.
These three Cassini images show a propeller-shaped structure created by an unseen moon in Saturn's A ring. Propellers and other details of Saturn's rings are greeting scientists for the first time in two years, as Cassini's orbit took the spacecraft out of Saturn's equatorial plane in the spring of 2012, making face-on views of the rings possible again.
The brightly reflective moon Enceladus appears before Saturn's rings while the larger moon Titan looms in the distance. The image was taken in visible green light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on March 12, 2012.
Compared to the gas giant, the two moons shown on either side of Saturn seem particularly small in this Cassini spacecraft view. The image was taken with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on Dec. 7, 2011.