How to Appreciate Saturn as Abstract Art - Atlas Obscura
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How to Appreciate Saturn as Abstract Art

In an image captured by Cassini, the gas giant’s rings look like razor-thin blades.

The Cassini spacecraft captured this nearly edge-on view of Saturn's rings and the moons Mimas, Janus, and Tethys.
The Cassini spacecraft captured this nearly edge-on view of Saturn’s rings and the moons Mimas, Janus, and Tethys. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

We’re used to seeing Saturn’s rings at an oblique angle, as concentric circles around a hazy sphere, but in this image, released by NASA last week, they look more like the angular arms of one of artist Alexander Calder’s kinetic sculptures. From this angle, the rings are collapsed into one razor-thin blade, flanked by the moons Mimas, Janus, and Tethys, and the gentle curve of the planet that holds them all together.

This surprising view was captured from the Cassini spacecraft. It combines images taken with red, green, and blue spectral filters, all gathered at distance of 1.7 million miles from the solar system’s second-largest planet, according to NASA’s release. The sleek geometry is a bit of a optical trick, since the moons and rings all orbit in about the same plane.

Galileo first documented Saturn’s rings in 1610, but the Cassini craft studied them more closely than any mission had before, including an analysis of the particles that compose them—from individual grains of sand to monumental mountains. When Saturn was at its equinox, Cassini monitored the rings’ temperature, which, according to an infrared spectrometer, dipped down to a frigid -382 degrees Fahrenheit. The craft also decoded “spokes,” of mysterious shapes that had registered on Voyager images as radial smudges. Cassini’s data suggests that these are made up of ice particles, held just above the rings by electrostatic charge. These phenomena can be vast—longer than 10,000 miles—but fleeting, gone in just a few hours.

The Cassini mission wrapped last fall, after two decades in space, when the craft burned up in Saturn’s atmosphere. Scientists are still sifting through the vast trove of data Cassini collected. But in the meantime, armchair astronomers can peruse the whole collection of images from the mission, which portray our solar neighborhood as familiar, thrillingly alien, and full of splendid visual surprises.