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A View of Saturn’s Rings From the Inside, Courtesy of Cassini

The 20-year-old satellite is still sending back images during its swan dive into the planet’s atmosphere.

An animation of Cassini passing by Saturn's rings, with actual footage in the inset.
An animation of Cassini passing by Saturn’s rings, with actual footage in the inset. NASA, JPL-Caltech, Space Science Institute/Public Domain

Saturn’s distinctive rings were first spotted by Galileo back in 1610, and for the next 407 years, humanity has had only one view of the rings—from the outside, looking in. But on August 20, the spacecraft Cassini captured the rings on camera from a new perspective as it passed between the rings and Saturn’s atmosphere. The quick flyby shows just how thin the clouds of dust and ice that encircle the gas giant are. The rings are estimated to be only a kilometer (about 3,300 feet) thick at most, which is minuscule compared to the giant planet they orbit. The images are part of the final stream of data the satellite will send back to Earth.

Cassini, along with the Huygens lander, was launched in 1997 and arrived in Saturn’s orbit in 2004. Cassini has had its mission extended three times as it keeps sending back valuable information about the second-largest planet in our solar system. Thanks to Cassini and Huygens, we know that some of the planet’s moons are home to conditions that may support life.

As Cassini’s mission winds down, it will complete a series of orbits between the rings and the planet before finally entering Saturn’s atmosphere on September 15, when it will melt and be destroyed. The satellite’s ending may be dramatic, but it allows scientists to collect data they otherwise wouldn’t have access to, and destroying the satellite protects the planet’s moons from potential biological contamination. It’s a noble end for a satellite that’s changed how we think about life in our solar system.