Washington: NASA's Cassini has returmed some stunning images of the Saturn's ocean-bearing moon Enceladus as the spacecraft begins its final close encounters with the planet's large, icy moon.
The spacecraft obtained its best-ever views of the northern extremes of Saturn's Enceladus during its October 14 flyby, passing 1,142 miles (1,839 kilometers) above the moon's surface.
With the mission set to end in 2017, the spacecraft will continue transmitting images and other data from the encounter for the next several days.
Scientists expected the north polar region of Enceladus to be heavily cratered, based on low-resolution images from the Voyager mission, but the new high-resolution Cassini images show a landscape of stark contrasts.
Cassini's next encounter with Enceladus is planned for October 28, and the spacecraft is set to pass a 30 miles (49 kilometers) above the moon's south polar region. During the encounter, Cassini will make its deepest-ever dive through the moon's plume of icy spray, sampling the chemistry of the extraterrestrial ocean beneath the ice, enabling scientists to study the composition.
Cassini's final close Enceladus flyby will take place on December 19, passing by at an altitude of 3,106 miles (4,999 kilometers). The spacecraft will measure the amount of heat coming from the moon's interior.
Cassini-Huygens, launched on October 15, 1997 aboard a Titan IVB/Centaur, entered orbit around Saturn on July 1, 2004, after an interplanetary voyage that included flybys of Earth, Venus, and Jupiter.
The spacecraft has beamed back to Earth hundreds of gigabytes of scientific data, enabling the publication of more than 3,000 scientific reports.