NASA's Cassini spacecraft sent photos of Saturn's north pole

The latest images from the beginning of Cassini's farewell year.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

As Cassini winds down its 20-year mission to Saturn, the spacecraft will maneuver into a series of weeklong orbits, allowing it to get a closer look at the planet's famous rings as it flies by. Although there are still a few days before Cassini grazes Saturn's rings, its cameras have already sent back some initial shots of some interesting features near the planet's northern hemisphere.

The images below, for example, show the same view of a hexagonal-shaped jetstream over the planet's north pole, as seen from about 400,000 miles above the planet and through four different spectral filters sensitive to wavelengths of light ranging from violet to infrared. (The curved lines you see beyond the edge of the planet are the rings, of course.) Although the images Cassini sends back are relatively small -- just 256 by 256 pixels square in their original format -- NASA calculated that each pixel represents about 95 miles of space and each side of the jetstream is about as wide as Earth itself.

Cassini will pass by the outer edges of the planet's rings on December 11 and it should start sending back images of the rings themselves a few days later. After that, Cassini will continue circling Saturn until April 22, when it will get a closer look at the moon Titan and another orbital adjustment in the process. That final orbit will swing the spacecraft back between the planet and its rings 22 more times before it finally takes a dive into the atmosphere and loses signal around September 15, 2017.