Saturn does its best to imitate a Christmas ornament

Assuming you read the headline, I'm probably not going to be able to convince you that this image is an extreme, shadowy close-up of a Christmas bauble. But it can still be hard to believe that these boldly colored, oddly perfect circles and hexagons can really be found in Saturn's northern hemisphere.

This photo, taken earlier this year, is one of several released by NASA and the Cassini imaging team, making this the tenth year in a row that the Cassini spacecraft has marked the holiday season with stunning new images from Saturn and its moons.

The hexagon represents Saturn's northern jet stream, and we were treated to hi-res footage of this unique bit of space weather earlier this month. Those previous images were awesomely bizarre and alien, whereas this latest image of the potentially centuries-old weather system has a serene, almost painted-on quality.

And it's hardly the only gorgeous image that Cassini has to share — check out this view from the gas giant's southern hemisphere:

Saturn does its best to imitate a Christmas ornament

While the image may appear to be black-and-white, this is actually in color, and the faint bluish tinge indicates that winter is at hand in southern Saturn. The Cassini team explains:

Winter is approaching in the southern hemisphere of Saturn and with this cold season has come the familiar blue hue that was present in the northern winter hemisphere at the start of NASA's Cassini mission. The changing blue hue that we have learned marks winter at Saturn is likely due to reduction of ultraviolet sunlight and the haze it produces, making the atmosphere clearer and increasing the opportunity for Rayleigh scattering (scattering by molecules and smaller particles) and methane absorption: both processes make the atmosphere blue. The small black dot seen to the right and up from image center, within the ring shadows of the A and F rings, is the shadow of the moon, Prometheus.

But my favorite image in the set is probably the shot below of Saturn's two largest moons, Rhea and Titan. The fact that Titan manages to loom large while positioned far behind Rhea is a good hint that it's the larger of the two moons; at 3,200 miles across, its diameter is more than three times wider than that of Rhea.

Saturn does its best to imitate a Christmas ornament

For even more incredible images, check out the Cassini Imaging Team's website.