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Hubble has captured a new image of Saturn that makes you wonder if it’s even real. The image is so crisp it makes it look like Saturn is just floating in space. Which it is.

This image of the ringed-planet was captured when Saturn was at its closest to Earth, some 1.36 billion km away (845 million miles) on June 20th, 2019. The crisp image was captured with Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3.)

This is an artful image that wouldn’t be out of place on a gallery wall. (As long as that gallery was curated by a space nerd.) But it’s more than just pretty: it’s scientific.

The image is part of a program called Outer Planet Atmospheres Legacy (OPAL.) OPAL’s goal is to accumulate long-baseline imagery of our Solar System’s gas giant planets, to help us understand their atmospheres over time. This is the second yearly picture of Saturn as part of the OPAL program.

This is another OPAL image of Saturn from June 6th, 2018. Scientists use the OPAL images to track changes in the planet's atmosphere. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, Amy Simon and the OPAL Team, and J. DePasquale (STScI)
This is another OPAL image of Saturn from June 6th, 2018. Scientists use the OPAL images to track changes in the planet’s atmosphere. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, Amy Simon and the OPAL Team, and J. DePasquale (STScI)

Saturn always looks so placid. Stately, even. But closer inspection reveals a lot going on there. When we think of storms and gas giants, we usually think of Jupiter, with its prominent horizontal storm bands, and of course, the Great Red Spot. But Saturn is a very active, stormy planet as well.

Thanks to the OPAL program, we know that a large hexagonal storm in the planet’s north polar region has disappeared. And smaller storms come and go frequently. There are also subtle changes in the planet’s storm bands, which are largely ammonia ice at the top.

But some features have persisted.

Cassini spotted the hexagonal storm at Saturn’s north pole, and that storm is still there. In fact, the Voyager 1 spacecraft was first to spot that feature back in 1981.

This grey-scale image of Saturn’s northern polar vortex was captured by the Cassini spacecraft. This image was captured from a distance of about 1.2 million km. A portion of Saturn’s rings are barely visible in the top right. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

Mostly though, this new Hubble image of Saturn is just beautiful. Even if you knew nothing about Saturn, its beauty would draw you in.

This composite image, taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope on 6 June 2018, shows the ringed planet Saturn with six of its 62 known moons. It’s also an OPAL image. The image is a composite because the moons move during the Saturn exposures, and individual frames must be realigned to make a color portrait. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, A. Simon (GSFC) and the OPAL Team, and J. DePasquale (STScI)

NASA also released an annotated, more informational version of the Hubble image.

An annotated version of the OPAL image, with four moons labelled and a distance marker. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center), M.H. Wong (University of California, Berkeley), and the OPAL Team
An annotated version of the OPAL image, with four moons labelled and a distance marker. Image Credit: NASAESA, A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center), M.H. Wong (University of California, Berkeley), and the OPAL Team

NASA also released a time-lapse video of Hubble images of Saturn. It shows the moons, or at least a few of Saturn’s 60+ moons, as they orbit around the gas giant. It’s made up of 33 separate images taken on June 19th and 20th, 2019.

And this:

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