The forthcoming James Webb Space Telescope may soon outmatch the Hubble Space Telescope, but its latest portrait of Saturn says that it’s not going out without a fight.
Astronomers took Hubble’s latest portrait of Saturn from NASA and the European Space Agency, which they unveiled on September 12. The image was born on June 20 by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 as Saturn was about 845 million miles (1.36 billion kilometers) away—also the closest the planet was to Earth this year.
It’s the second photo in an annual series for the Outer Planets Legacy project by scientists studying the gas giant planets of our solar system. “In Saturn’s case, scientists are tracking weather patterns and other changes to identify trends,” NASA and ESA officials said in an image description.
In the brand new portrait, Saturn shows off the magnificence of its rings that made it one of the most favored planets in our solar system.
“Saturn hosts many recognizable features, most notably its trademark ring system, which is now tilted towards Earth,” NASA/ESA officials wrote in the image description. “This gives us a magnificent view of its bright icy structure.”
It is also taken in an impressively clear and crisp quality that spurred speculation that it was almost digitally-made rather than taken.
If taken in-depth, it’s just water and ice. Despite their unremarkable make-up, Saturn’s rings are an iconic sight and have been since the late 1970s when first Pioneer 11, then Voyagers 1 and 2, visited the Saturnian System to give us the first look of planet.
To be specific, Saturn’s atmosphere gets its banded look from winds and clouds moving at different altitudes.
Meanwhile, the instrument astronomers used—the Hubble Space Telescope—launched in 1990 and is one of the most prolific space observatories of all time. The telescope is often used to peer into deep space, trying to discover the mysteries kept by the Universe but it works best with those within proximity.
“Hubble’s high-resolution images of our planetary neighbors can only be surpassed by pictures taken from spacecraft that actually visit these bodies,” ‘NASA/ESA officials wrote. “However, Hubble has one advantage over space probes; it can look at these objects periodically and observe them over much longer periods than any passing probe could.”
In one of the photos of Saturn, the Hubble space telescope was also able to capture four of the planet’s moons (there are 62 in all).
Among them is Mimas, the “Death Star” moon — so-called because its massive Herschel crater gives it a look akin to the fictional moonlike space station from “Star Wars.”
The other Saturnian moons spotted by Hubble are Enceladus, which harbors geysers and a vast water ocean under an icy shell; Janus, a potato-shaped moon covered in craters; and Tethys, an icy round moon with weird red arcs of material on its surface.
And in the center is a bright and giant Saturn, gleaming in contrast to the darkness of space.
“Saturn’s amber colors come from summer smog-like hazes, produced in photochemical reactions driven by solar ultraviolet radiation,” NASA/ESA officials said. “Below the haze lies clouds of ammonia ice crystals, as well as deeper, unseen lower-level clouds of ammonium hydrosulphide and water.”
For decades, astronomers and scientists alike have wondered about what lies within Saturn, under all that gas and ice.
One particular subject of interest is Saturn’s hexagon, a target of truly perplexing geometry.
The weird hexagon-shaped phenomenon encircled Saturn’s north pole and was first spotted by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft in 2007. Cassini orbited Saturn from 2004 to 2017.
“It is a mysterious six-sided pattern caused by a high-speed jet stream,” NASA/ESA officials added. “The hexagon is so large that four Earths could fit inside its boundaries (there is no similar structure at Saturn’s south pole).”