NASA / JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute
NASA's Cassini spacecraft obtained this unprocessed image of Saturn's moon Hyperion during a close flyby on Aug. 25.
updated 8/30/2011 7:02:01 PM ET 2011-08-30T23:02:01

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has captured new photos of Saturn's ugly-duckling moon Hyperion that show its cratered surface up close.

The pictures come from Cassini's Aug. 25 flyby of the Saturn moon Hyperion. The pass, the spacecraft's second-closest encounter with the moon, brought Cassini within about 15,500 miles of Hyperion’s surface.

Of all Saturn’s 62 moons, Hyperion is one of the strangest. It is an ungainly, misshapen space rock hurtling on a chaotic orbit around the ringed giant.

The moon is small — only about 168 miles across — and has an irregular shape and surface appearance. As it tumbles along in orbit, the moon rotates unpredictably, preventing scientists from predicting in advance exactly what terrain the spacecraft's cameras would image during this flyby.

NASA / JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute
This side view of the moon Hyperion reveals craters and other battered surface features.

However, this flyby's closeness has likely allowed Cassini's cameras to map new territory, scientists said.

The images should help researchers improve color measurements of the moon and determine how the moon's brightness changes as lighting and viewing conditions change, which can provide insight into the texture of the surface. The color measurements provide additional information about different materials on the moon's deeply pitted surface.

This isn't the first time Cassini has snapped close-up photos of the Saturn moon.

Cassini's closest encounter with Hyperion was on Sept. 26, 2005, when the spacecraft flew approximately 310 miles above the moon's surface.

Cassini's next flyby of Hyperion will be on Sept. 16, 2011, when it passes the tumbling moon at a distance of about 36,000 miles.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft launched in 1997 on a mission to study Saturn, the solar system's second-largest planet. The probe arrived in orbit around the planet in 2004, and is expected to continue taking observations through at least 2017.

You can follow Space.com senior writer Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ ClaraMoskowitz. Follow Space.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcomand on Facebook.

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