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Saturn's shadow stretches completely across the rings in this view, taken on Jan. 19, 2007. The view is a mosaic of 36 images — that is, 12 separate sets of red, green and blue images — taken over the course of about 2½ hours, as Cassini scanned across the entire main ring system. ((NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute))

The international Cassini spacecraft has sent back images of Saturn from never-before seen angles high above and below the planet's rings.

The images, taken over the last two months, have been combined into mosaics in both colour, and black and white, creating some of the most vivid images yet of the planet and its famous rings.

"Finally, here are the views that we've waited years for," Cassini scientist Carolyn Porco of the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo., said in a statement Thursday after NASA released the images.

"Sailing high above Saturn and seeing the rings spread out beneath us like a giant, copper medallion is like exploring an alien world we've never seen before. It just doesn't look like the same place. It's so utterly breath-taking, it almost gives you vertigo."

Cassini's high-inclined orbit around Saturn will be gradually reduced so that by late June it will once again be orbiting on a plane parallel to the rings.

The $3.3-billion US Cassini mission launched in 1997 and has been orbiting the planet since 2004. It is funded by NASA and the European and Italian space agencies and managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

With files from the Associated Press