The Hubble telescope, while generally known for its dreamy photographs of distant worlds and its star system, has captured a striking new image of Saturn, its rings, and five of its more than 60 moons. The photograph is so sharp and clear that it appears that Saturn is floating freely through space, which is true, except that it follows an established orbit around the Sun.
The ringed planet was captured by the Hubble Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) on June 20, when Saturn was at its closest to Earth, about 1.36 billion kilometers away.
But this is much more than just a picture of a beautiful planet: it is scientifically significant.
The photo is part of NASA’s Outer Planet Atmospheres Legacy (OPAL) program, which accumulates images of the gas giants in our solar system – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune – to help study their atmospheres throughout the weather. This latest Hubble photo of Saturn is the second annual image of the planet under OPAL. From the data and images collected under the OPAL program, scientists have learned quite a bit about the outer planet.
On the one hand, that the great hexagonal storm that hit the north polar region of the planet has disappeared. Smaller storms also frequently come and go on Saturn. There are also subtle changes in the planet’s storm bands, which are largely made up of ammonia ice on top.
NASA released an annotated and informative version of the Hubble photograph along with it, and a timelapse video of the moons in their orbits.
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