As Cassini nears its rendezvous with Saturn, new detail in the banded clouds of the planet's atmosphere are becoming visible.
Cassini began the journey to the ringed world of Saturn nearly seven years ago and is now less than two months away from orbit insertion on June 30. Cassini's narrow-angle camera took this image on April 16, 2004, when the spacecraft was 38.5 million kilometers (23.9 million miles) from Saturn.
Dark regions are generally areas free of high clouds, and bright areas are places with high, thick clouds which shield the view of the darker areas below. A dark spot is visible at the south pole, which is remarkable to scientists because it is so small and centered. The spot could be affected by Saturn's magnetic field, which is nearly aligned with the planet's rotation axis, unlike the magnetic fields of Jupiter and Earth. From south to north, other notable features are the two white spots just above the dark spot toward the right, and the large dark oblong-shaped feature that extends across the middle. The darker band beneath the oblong-shaped feature has begun to show a lacy pattern of lighter-colored, high altitude clouds, indicative of turbulent atmospheric conditions.
The cloud bands move at different speeds, and their irregularities may be due to either the different motions between them or to disturbances below the visible cloud layer. Such disturbances might be powered by the planet's internal heat; Saturn radiates more energy than it receives from the Sun.
The moon Mimas (396 kilometers, 245 miles across) is visible to the left of the south pole. Saturn currently has 31 known moons. Since launch, 13 new moons have been discovered by ground-based telescopes. Cassini will get a closer look and may discover new moons, perhaps embedded within the planet's magnificent rings.
This image was taken using a filter sensitive to light near 727 nanometers, one of the near-infrared absorption bands of methane gas, which is one of the ingredients in Saturn's atmosphere. The image scale is approximately 231 kilometers (144 miles) per pixel. Contrast has been enhanced to aid visibility of features in the atmosphere.
The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Cassini-Huygens mission for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging team is based at the Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colo.