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NASA Gives Us Our Best-Ever Look At Saturn's Rings

Though Saturn's rings might look smooth from down here, new observations -- closer than ever before -- tell a different story.

The final data of NASA' s Cassini mission has been crunched, revealing fine details of complex features and gaps within Saturn's main rings.

The Cassini spacecraft ended its 20-year mission in 2017 by "death diving" into the planet's atmosphere and recording data until the final second.

Researchers tasked with analysing the information published their most recent findings in the journal Science on Friday, along with new images taken from within the iconic rings.

"Getting closer to the rings, getting higher resolution images and spectra, we're starting to get new views, some of the best-ever views of some of the dynamics and evolution of what's going on in Saturn's rings," Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, told Space.com.

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Researchers found that while the rings may appear smooth at first glance, up close, there are different structures, patterns and textures.

Some are straw like while others are clumpy, raising questions about what processes shaped them.

New images of Saturn's rings show how textures differ even in close proximity of one another. Image: NASA

Saturn's rings-- which are only about 10 metres thick-- are made up predominately of chunks of water ice which range in size from microscopic grains to boulders.

When these particles get far enough away from the planet's gravity, they often merge together to form icy moons. There are 62 named moons orbiting Saturn.

READ MORETake A Good Look, Saturn's Losing Its Rings At 'Worst-Case-Scenario' Rate

Cassini's images reveal some the rings are being shaped by these moons interacting with particles around them, as opposed to debris that crashes into the them.

A false-color image mosaic shows Daphnis, one of Saturn's ring-embedded moons, and the waves it kicks up in the Keeler gap. Image: NASA

"These new details of how the moons are sculpting the rings in various ways provide a window into solar system formation," said lead author and Cassini scientist Matt Tiscareno of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California.

"Where you also have disks evolving under the influence of masses embedded within them."

The Cassini spacecraft was sent hurtling into Saturn's atmosphere in hopes of investigating the "ring rain" phenomenon -- a theory that has been around since NASA's Voyager missions launched in the 1970s.

According to the theory, the material which makes up the planet's rings is being pulled into Saturn by gravity as a dusty rain of ice particles, under the influence of Saturn's magnetic field.

Research released in December last year confirmed that Saturn is losing its iconic rings to the process at 'worst-case-scenario' rate.

Contact the author: vquested@networkten.com.au