Saturn's north pole sits smack-dab in the center of a strange, six-sided feature that scientists don't quite understand, and a new photo shines the spotlight on this mysterious feature.
NASA's Cassini spacecraft, which has been orbiting Saturn since 2004, has taken several photos of this weird geometry that dominates Saturn's north pole. This close-up was captured with Cassini's wide-angle camera on Dec. 2, 2016, and was released today (Feb. 27). At the time the image was captured, Cassini was about 619,000 miles (996,000 kilometers) away from Saturn.
"The north pole of Saturn sits at the center of its own domain," NASA officials said in a statement. "Around it swirl the clouds, driven by the fast winds of Saturn. Beyond that orbits Saturn's retinue of moons and the countless small particles that form the ring." [Saturn's Strange Hexagon in Photos]
Despite Saturn's spherical shape, belt-like cloud bands and round rings, not everything around the gas giant shares these characteristic curves.
"Some of the jet-stream patterns, such as the hexagon-shaped pattern seen here, have wavy, uneven shapes," NASA officials said in the statement. "The moons, as well, have orbits that are elliptical, some quite far from circular."
Scientists suspect that Saturn's hexagon is the result of a shallow jet stream that is being supported by winds that rotate below.
After nearly 13 years at Saturn, the Cassini mission is nearing its grand finale. On Sept. 27, the spacecraft will plunge into the planet's atmosphere for a planned crash landing. Cassini will continue to beam back incredible close-up shots of Saturn and its many moons until the very end.