NASA’s Cassini orbiter, heading toward a daring plunge that will carry it to 22 separate orbits between Saturn’s rings and the giant planet, has taken the closest ever photo of Saturn’s moon Atlas.
Just 19 miles (30 km) in diameter and not large enough or massive enough to be spherical, Atlas is located outside Saturn’s A ring, the outermost of its main, bright rings.
The probe flew within 7,000 miles (11,000 km) during its closest approach on Tuesday, April 12, capturing the most detailed photos ever taken of the lumpy moon and its broad equatorial ridge.
“These images are the closest ever taken of Atlas and will help to characterize its shape and geology,” NASA noted in a public statement.
Because the small moon has a central hump surrounded by a broad ridge, some describe it as resembling a classic flying saucer.
In orbit around Saturn since July 2004, Cassini has captured photos of its many strangely-shaped moons, including Mimas, which resembles the “Death Star” in the “Star Wars” movies, Iapetus, which appears walnut-shaped, and Pan, which some describe as resembling a piece of ravioli.
Saturn has a total of 62 known moons. Two of those, Titan and Enceladus, might be habitable for microbial life.
In January 2005, Cassini dropped the Huygens probe onto Titan’s surface. The lander operated for approximately 90 minutes before its battery died and sent back images of the large moon’s thick clouds and surface.
Images captured by the lander showed a world that resembles early Earth and has surface lakes of liquid methane and ethane.
At Enceladus, Cassini discovered plumes of water ice and organic compounds spewing from cracks near the south pole. These plumes are believed to originate in a subsurface ocean, which the probe recently found has the chemical elements to support life.
Now running out of fuel after nearly 13 years, Cassini will embark on a grand finale journey that will end with a September 15 plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere, a move to assure any Earth microbes on the spacecraft do not contaminate potentially habitable Titan and Enceladus.