NASA releases most detailed images of Saturn's rings yet

Image 1 of 7

NASA released Monday unprecedented images of Saturn's rings showing twice the detail ever observed before.

The new images capture details as small as 0.3 miles, which is on the scale of Earth's tallest buildings. 

NASA says its Cassini spacecraft is now in its "Ring-Grazing" orbits phase, during which it observes the Saturn's huge rings of icy debris. 

"The rings, which are made of small, icy particles spread over a vast area, are extremely thin -- generally no thicker than the height of a house," NASA explains. "Thus, despite their giant proportions, the rings contain a surprisingly small amount of material."

The pictures Cassini sent back provide the closest-ever views of the outer parts of the main rings, giving scientists an eagerly awaited opportunity to observe features with names like "straw" and "propellers." 

The ring-grazing orbits began last November, according to NASA, and will continue until late April, when Cassini begins its grand finale.

During Cassini's grand finale the spacecraft will make 22 finale orbits, repeatedly plunging through the gap between Saturn and its rings-- a view never seen before.

The first finale plunge is scheduled for April 26.

Matthew Tiscareno, a Cassini scientist who studies Saturn's rings, said in a statement to NASA, "These close views represent the opening of an entirely new window onto Saturn’s rings, and over the next few months we look forward to even more exciting data as we train our cameras on other parts of the rings closer to the planet." 

Cassini was first launched in 1997, and has been touring the Saturn system since arriving in 2004 for an up-close study of the planet, its rings and moons, and its vast magnetosphere. The spacecraft has made numerous discoveries already, including an ocean with possible hydrothermal activity within the moon Enceladus, and liquid methane seas on another moon, Titan.

As Cassini's orbit comes closer to Saturn, the level of detail-- and opportunity for new discoveries will continue to increase. 

According to NASA, the Cassini team now has a deeper, richer understanding of what they're seeing, and they still anticipate new surprises.