These 11 Pictures of Saturn Will Stun You, Even Now

Bloomberg News

In one of the most charming moments in astronomy, Galileo, who discovered Saturn’s rings in 1610, took them to be handles. A portable planet.

Today, in one of the most thrilling moments—and, for the mission’s scientists and engineers, perhaps the saddest—the orbiter Cassini-Huygens plunged toward Saturn at nearly 80,000 miles an hour to incinerate itself. “That would be the end of the spacecraft,” a voice announced at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in California, as the team lost Cassini’s signal.

The program manager, Earl Maize, congratulated everyone and then basically did a mic drop. “I'm gonna call this the end of mission,” he said. Extremely well-earned hugs ensued. You can watch the postgame show here.

Looking forward, NASA still has a ton of data (scientifically speaking) to sift through, including the spacecraft’s closest sniff of Saturn’s atmosphere as it melted the orbiter into nothing. Some of that data could drop hints about the formation of the universe.

Cassini, which set out on its seven-year trek in 1997 and had been sending back images and data from Saturn since 2004, began making bolder sorties late last year as it neared the end of its fuel and its life. Since the spring it had swooped between the innermost ring and the planet itself, Star Wars style, to send back ever more granular data and ever grander photos.

Saturn’s moons Titan and Enceladus are two of the most promising places in our solar system for the discovery of extraterrestrial life. A few minutes before 8 am Eastern Time, Cassini hurtled to its end. NASA and its partners in the mission, the European and Italian space agencies, didn’t want to risk the spacecraft’s crashing into one of the planet’s moons someday and contaminating them with alien life. That would be us.

Here are 11 of the best pictures ever to come out of anybody’s trip abroad. 

A gap in Saturn's rings known as the Cassini Division, January 2016. It's named after Giovanni Cassini, who in 1675 discovered the widest of the gaps between the rings. The gaps are thought to be formed as smaller moons sweep round the planet, clearing paths between the streams of ice, rock, and dust that make up the rings, and as larger moons tug at the debris through gravity.

Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Saturn, May 2007. The planet is adorned by seven rings, which rotate at different speeds. They were born perhaps from the rubble of comets or disintegrated moons. 

Source: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Titan, May 2012. Saturn has 53 confirmed moons; you're looking at the largest of them. Titan is our solar system’s second-biggest moon, after Jupiter’s Ganymede, and the only one with a proper, if forbidding, atmosphere, which is almost all nitrogen, like Earth's before things got interesting. With Enceladus, it is among the likeliest bodies in the solar system to host life. 

Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Shadows fall across the rings in front of the planet, February 2016. Saturn has winds as strong as 1,800 kilometers per hour (more than 1,100 mph). Named for Saturnus, the Roman god of agriculture and prosperity, Saturn is noted in written records, believed to be Assyrian, as old as 700 BCE.

Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Enceladus, February 2016. With a vast underground ocean that explodes into gas through gashes in the surface, this handsome moon is one of the better bets for extraterrestrial life in our solar system.

Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The unilluminated side of Saturn's rings, August 2012. Saturn is the sixth planet from the Sun, some 1.4 billion kilometers, or nearly 900 million miles, from our star, and from Earth the furthest of the five we can readily see without a telescope. It is made mostly of hydrogen gas flecked with crystals of ammonia that lend it its yellowish tint. The second-largest planet in our solar system, after Jupiter, Saturn is a soccer ball if Earth is a nickel.

Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

A ''mini-jet," thought to be caused by low-speed collisions as dusty material is ejected from the ring's core, June 2013. At the maxi end of things is the Great White Spot, a vast storm that brews every three decades—a year on Saturn—and can wrap round the planet. 

Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Saturn's rings cut across Titan's luminous crescent and the smaller moon Enceladus, June 2006. Titan was discovered by the Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens in 1655. He lent his name to the craft that landed on Titan in 2005, the first ever to touch down on a moon other than Earth's. 

Source: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

A false-color image shows the spinning vortex of Saturn's north polar storm, November 2012. Deeper down, the planet's core is believed to be of solid rock and metal, reaching temperatures of 11,700° Celsius. Saturn is a giant sphere of gas squeezed at the poles by its rotation.

Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Vertical structures in Saturn's main rings, July 2009. The rings are made of particles as small as motes and, in a few cases, as big as mountains, NASA tells us.

Source: NASA/JPL/SSI

This is us from far away, July 2013. Earth is over there on the right. 

Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute