ORBIT-UARY

For more than a decade, Cassini’s Saturn photos turned scientific research into contemporary art

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is expected to descend, in a dramatic fashion, into Saturn’s atmosphere on Friday (Sept 15). It has been orbiting the ringed planet for more than a decade.

Cassini did quite a bit of work during its cosmic tenure, including collecting crucial information about the chemical makeup of Saturn and its moons, some of which might be capable of supporting life. But beyond the data, many of its images are also visually striking, evoking revered Japanese minimalist photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto with commanding lines and stark chiaroscuro.

Rendered primarily in black and white due to technical limitations, Cassini’s images combine the mesmerizing abstractions of the Hubble Space telescope with the immediacy of dispatches from the Mars Curiosity Rover. The gallery-worthy selection below offers both tangibility and (literal) other-worldliness: The viewer can finally see what Saturn’s rings are made of—but what looks like a single speck might be as big a truck in reality.

IDL TIFF file
A view of Tethys, one of Saturns moons, visible in the top left corner. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
IDL TIFF file
A detail of Saturn’s C ring (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
IDL TIFF file
Enceladus’ intriguing south-polar jets are viewed from afar, backlit by sunlight while the moon itself glows softly in reflected Saturn-shine. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
IDL TIFF file
An illuminated sliver of Saturn seen in March, 2017. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
PIA21329_full
A view of the Keeler Gap, near the outer edge of Saturn’s rings. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
PIA21628_figA
The highest-resolution color images of any part of Saturn’s rings, showing a portion of the inner-central part of the planet’s B Ring. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
Clouds on Saturn's northern hemisphere.
Clouds on Saturn’s northern hemisphere. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
IDL TIFF file
Swirling clouds on Saturns north pole. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
5990_PIA17154
In this frame, one of Saturn’s moons, Mimas, is visible in the lower right corner. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
5439_PIA14587
A pair of Saturn’s moons are dwarfed by Saturn lingering from behind. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
6275_PIA18343
A view of Saturn’s rings and one of its moons Enceladus. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
5678_IMG004678
A view of Saturn’s north pole. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
IDL TIFF file
Waves structures in Saturn’s rings. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
6237_PIA18330
Saturn’s moon Dione crosses the face of the giant planet in this view, a phenomenon astronomers call a transit. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
7381_PIA20487_full
A view Saturn’s rings, its moon Enceladus and a visible night side of the planet. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Read next: How to watch Cassini’s Saturn mission end with a daring dive into the atmosphere

home our picks popular latest obsessions search