A portion of the rings of Saturn will be lopped off in the next portrait sent home by the Cassini spacecraft. The probe is so close to Saturn that in its most recent image, released Thursday, the planet and rings fill the full frame.
Cassini goes into orbit around Saturn on July 1. The latest image, a natural color view from the narrow angle camera, was taken March 27 when the spacecraft was 29.7 million miles (47.7 million kilometers) from the planet.
A bright blue sliver of light in the northern hemisphere is sunlight passing through the Cassini Division in Saturn's rings and being scattered by the cloud-free upper atmosphere.
In the southern hemisphere, two faint dark spots are visible. These spots are close to the latitude where Cassini saw two storms merging in an image released earlier this month. The fate of the storms in the new image is unclear, scientists said. The spots are getting close and will eventually merge or squeeze past each other.
Cassini launched in 1997. To save fuel and money, it made several planetary flybys to get speed boosts by stealing a little orbital energy from the planets. It looped around Venus twice, then flew past Earth. Later it studied and photographed Jupiter while getting a final push toward Saturn.
On May 18, Cassini will enter the Saturn system, passing a group of outer moons as the gravitational pull of the giant planet begins to overpower that of the sun. Observations of Saturn's largest moon, Titan, will begin a few days later.
The spacecraft will release its piggybacked Huygens probe about six months after arriving at Saturn. Huygens will descend through the thick atmosphere of Titan on Jan. 14, 2005.
The mission is a cooperative effort of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The imaging team is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo.
Mission officials said last week that the spacecraft is in excellent health and operating normally.