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Saturn's Rings Just Got the Ultimate Close-Up from Cassini (Photos)
Saturn's outer B ring is highlighted in this new image from NASA's Cassini spacecraft, taken Dec. 18, 2016, in visible light. The image features twice as much detail as any previous photo of the area. The fine structure near the edge on the left is referred to as "straw," and could come from embedded objects too small to see or from particle clumping caused by the regular tugging of a nearby moon.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Saturn's rings appear as bright waves against a black sky in detailed new pictures from the Cassini spacecraft, which made its closest pass by the icy debris in years.

The rings of Saturn are visible even in a small telescope from Earth, and they are embedded with icy particles ranging from dust- to house-size chunks. 

The new views of the rings provide scientists with more details on clumping particle structures called "straw" and features called "propellers" generated by moonlets embedded in the rings. It's the best view scientists have gotten since discovering those features in 2004 and 2005, respectively, shortly after Cassini's arrival at Saturn, NASA said in a statement. [Saturn's Glorious Rings in Pictures]

This Cassini image, taken Dec. 8, 2016, highlights Saturn's A ring, at left, and shows a density wave — a buildup of material that has formed from the pull of the moons Janus and Epimetheus. Clumpy perturbations called "straw" are also visible within that wave.
This Cassini image, taken Dec. 8, 2016, highlights Saturn's A ring, at left, and shows a density wave — a buildup of material that has formed from the pull of the moons Janus and Epimetheus. Clumpy perturbations called "straw" are also visible within that wave.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Cassini is in its last year of operations as the spacecraft positions itself to make a suicidal plunge into Saturn in September. The probe is halfway through the completion of 20 orbits that graze past the outer edge of the main ring system of Saturn. Next, Cassini will make 22 orbits between the rings and Saturn before taking a swan dive into the gas giant.

Cassini took this image of Saturn's outer B ring in visible light, revealing even more fine detail to be explored, NASA officials said. The bright marks are caused by cosmic rays and charged particles near the planet.
Cassini took this image of Saturn's outer B ring in visible light, revealing even more fine detail to be explored, NASA officials said. The bright marks are caused by cosmic rays and charged particles near the planet.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

"Cassini came a bit closer to the rings during its arrival at Saturn, but the quality of those arrival images was not as high as in the new views," NASA officials said in the statement. "Those precious few observations only looked out on the backlit side of the rings, and the team chose short exposure times to minimize smearing due to Cassini's fast motion as it vaulted over the ring plane. This resulted in images that were scientifically stunning, but somewhat dark and noisy."

The new observations, by contrast, have both backlit and sunlit views, and resolve details as small as 550 meters (0.34 miles) across. Also, Cassini is making multiple passes by the region, an improvement over the first view obtained more than a decade ago, which lasted only a few hours.

A portion of Saturn's A ring stars in this new Cassini image.
A portion of Saturn's A ring stars in this new Cassini image.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

"As the person who planned those initial orbit-insertion ring images — which remained our most detailed views of the rings for the past 13 years — I am taken aback by how vastly improved are the details in this new collection," Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging team lead at the Space Science Institute in Colorado, said in the statement. "How fitting it is that we should go out with the best views of Saturn's rings we've ever collected."

Some of Cassini's notable discoveries since 2004 include finding a global ocean and vents on the icy moon Enceladus, discovering liquid-methane seas on the orange moon Titan and imaging vertical structures in Saturn's rings.

Follow Elizabeth Howell @howellspace, or Space.com @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com.