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Saturn's Rings, Hexagon on Display in Amazing Photo

Saturn Vortex and Rings
Saturn's north polar vortex and hexagon appears in this photo along with the planet’s famous rings. Image released July 7, 2014. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

A NASA probe exploring Saturn and its many moons has captured an incredible photo of the planet's swirling north polar vortex and distinctive rings.

The Cassini spacecraft, which has been orbiting Saturn since 2004, captured the newly released image on April 2, 2014. The gas giant's weird hexagonal vortex, which is visible in the center of the picture, is wider than two Earths, NASA officials said. 

Cassini snapped this view of the planet as it flew about 1.4 million miles (2.2 million kilometers) from Saturn, according to NASA.

Scientists think the hexagon is a current of air surrounding a huge storm. It's possible that the storm has been raging for centuries because no landmasses can disrupt the turbulent weather, as mountains and other formations do on Earth, NASA officials have said.

The $3.2 billion Cassini mission — a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency — has embarked upon its final act before the probe is purposefully crashed into Saturn's thick atmosphere. In mission phase known as the "Grand Finale," Cassini will zip between Saturn and the planet's innermost ring 22 times starting in late 2016 before it dives into Saturn's atmosphere in September 2017.

"As we approach Saturn's summer solstice in 2017, lighting conditions over its north pole will improve, and we are excited to track the changes that occur both inside and outside the hexagon boundary," Scott Edgington, Cassini deputy project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said in a statement in 2013.

Scientists are hoping to create detailed maps of Saturn's gravity and magnetic fields during the probe's 22 orbits between the rings and planet. The extremely close orbits will also help researchers learn more about how much material makes up the rings.

Learn more about the image from NASA: http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/photos/imagedetails/index.cfm?imageId=5057

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Miriam Kramer
Miriam Kramer joined Space.com as a staff writer in December 2012. Since then, she has floated in weightlessness on a zero-gravity flight, felt the pull of 4-Gs in a trainer aircraft and watched rockets soar into space from Florida and Virginia. She also serves as Space.com's lead space entertainment reporter, and enjoys all aspects of space news, astronomy and commercial spaceflight.  Miriam has also presented space stories during live interviews with Fox News and other TV and radio outlets. She originally hails from Knoxville, Tennessee where she and her family would take trips to dark spots on the outskirts of town to watch meteor showers every year. She loves to travel and one day hopes to see the northern lights in person. You can follow Miriam on Twitter and Google+.

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