The Cassini imaging team (CICLOPS, the Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations) just released some new images of Saturn today. Among them is this incredible time-lapse video from photographs Cassini took as it crossed Saturn’s ring plane. You can see how thin the rings are as the orbiter crosses them.
The spacecraft crosses the ring plane twice each orbit. This video represents approximately twelve hours and so runs around a thousand times faster than real time. Cassini starts on the sunlit side of the rings, then crosses to the darker side. We see six moons during the video, though the smaller ones aren’t really visible at the low-resolution version of the video I’ve shown here. A high-resolution version is available at the CICLOPS web site and is definitely worth the download. The first large moon is Enceladus; the second one is Mimas.
The Cassini spacecraft was launched from Earth on 15 October 1997 as part of the Cassini-Huygens mission, a joint project between NASA, the ESA (European Space Agency), and the Italian Space Agency. It entered into Saturn orbit on 1 July 2004. It is the first spacecraft to orbit Saturn and the fourth one to visit it (after Pioneer 11, Voyager 1, and Voyager 2).
(Thanks to the Bad Astronomer for the link!)