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Cassini orbiter sees Saturn's storms in black and white ... and red all over

NASA / JPL-Caltech / SSI

Saturn's storm systems swirl in a near-infrared image captured by the Cassini orbiter's camera system on Dec. 24, from a distance of 441,028 miles (709,766 kilometers).

The storms of Saturn ripple through the frame of a black-and-white close-up captured by the Cassini orbiter on Christmas Eve and received on Earth on Wednesday.

"Close-up" is a relative term: When this picture was taken, Cassini was 441,028 miles (709,766 kilometers) away from Saturn, or almost twice the distance between Earth and the moon. Also, "black-and-white" doesn't tell the whole story: The picture was captured through the wide-angle camera's CB2 red filter, which brings out more of the variations in the cloud tops of the planet's atmosphere. For an even more dramatic illustration of the effect, compare the photos accompanying this report about Saturn's north polar vortex.

So what's black and white and red all over? This picture answers the riddle.

For more pictures from Cassini, including a top-10 photo slideshow and raw imagery from last weekend's flyby of the Saturnian moon Rhea, check out NASA's Cassini website as well as the online home base for the CICLOPS imaging team. You can also click through these additional stunners from the Cassini mission:

Update for 9:50 p.m. ET: I originally wrote that the CB2 filter was an infrared filter, but NASA says it's just on the edge of the visible-light spectrum, going into the near-infrared, at a wavelength of 751 nm. Good: That makes the riddle even more apt.

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.