The Cassini spacecraft, orbiting around Saturn since 2004, has taken a stunning new image of the planet Uranus, seen from billions of miles away.
Uranus is seen just outside Saturn's rings in the image, recently released by NASA. In reality, the icy gas giant was orbiting the sun 2,569,800,000 miles from the ringed planet.
The planet is seen in the upper left of the image, while Saturn's A and F rings are seen cutting across the photograph.
Uranus has 14.5 times the mass of the Earth, but is just four times the diameter of our home planet. Orbiting almost 1.8 billion miles from the sun, it is largely composed of frozen methane ammonia and ices. Like its neighbor Neptune, its size and composition classifies Uranus as an icy giant. Methane in the planet's atmosphere absorbs blue light, and reflects blue, giving Uranus its distinctive color. The planet also rotates on its side, unlike any other planet. Astronomers are still investigating what may have caused this unusual planetary behavior.
"The planets Uranus and Neptune are sometimes referred to as 'ice giants' to distinguish them from their larger siblings, Jupiter and Saturn, the classic 'gas giants.' [A] large part of the planets' composition consists of water, ammonia and methane, which are typically frozen as ices in the cold depths of the outer solar system. Jupiter and Saturn are made almost entirely of hydrogen and helium, with smaller percentages of these ices," NASA officials wrote in a press release announcing the new photograph.
When this image was taken on 11 April 2014, Saturn and Uranus were nearly on opposite sides or the sun, almost 2.7 billion miles apart. At their closest, the two giant planets come within 930 million miles of each other.
In July 2013, NASA released a picture of a "a pale blue dot" of Earth, seen along with Saturn's rings, also taken by the Cassini orbiter. The first image ever taken of Earth from the edges of the solar system was taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft in 1990. It was inspired by popular astronomer Carl Sagan.
The Cassini orbiter was part of the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn, which launched in 1997. In 2005, the Huygens lander successfully touched down on the surface of Titan, Saturn's largest moon.
"In addition to its aesthetic appeal, Cassini's view of Uranus also serves a practical purpose. Scientists working on several of Cassini's science investigations expect that they will be able to use images and spectra from these observations to help calibrate their own instruments," Jet Propulsion Laboratory reported on their Web site.