After 5 years of interplanetary travel, the Saturn-bound Cassini mission has obtained its first image of the ringed planet. Released Nov. 1, the image was taken when Cassini was 285 million kilometers from Saturn–nearly twice the distance between Earth and the sun. The image shows the shadow of the planet falling across its rings.

CATCH THE RINGS. Saturn as seen by the Cassini spacecraft. The planet’s shadow extends partway across the rings, leaving the outer ring in sunlight. NASA/JPL/Southwest Research Institute

“Seeing the picture makes our science-planning work suddenly seem more real,” says Alfred S. McEwen of the University of Arizona in Tucson. Cassini is scheduled to begin orbiting Saturn on July 1, 2004. During a subsequent 4-year tour, the craft will study the composition of the planet itself, its rings, and its moons. On Jan. 14, 2005, Cassini is scheduled to release a probe that is scheduled to parachute through the thick atmosphere of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. Astronomers suspect that Titan’s surface contains lakes or oceans of methane, a possible building block of life.


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