NASA's Cassini 'successfully dives' between Saturn and its rings

We did it! Cassini is in contact with Earth and sending back data after a successful dive through the gap between Saturn and its rings.

"For example, just two weeks ago, NASA's Cassini mission confirmed the presence of hydrogen from plumes on Saturn's moon Enceladus while our Hubble Space Telescope team announced the second observation of possible plumes near the equator of Jupiter's moon Europa".

The close-in dives are created to gather ultra high-quality data.

NASA said Cassini came within about 1,900 miles of Saturn's cloud tops and about 200 miles from the innermost edge of Saturn's rings.

The final mission, according to NASA, involves a "daring" series of dives (22 in total) between Saturn and its icy rings, and ends with Cassini plunging into Saturn's atmosphere in its final orbit in September.

During its flight through uncharted territory, Cassini will collect new data about Saturn, including its internal arrangement based on the planet's gravity and magnetic fields, how much material is in its icy rings and the spacecraft will, of course, deliver "ultra-close" images of Saturn's rings and clouds. The gap between Saturn and the rings is about 1,500 miles (2,400 km) wide and likely littered with ice particles.

The spacecraft zipped through this region at speeds of about 124,000 kilometres per hour relative to the planet, so that small particles hitting a sensitive area could potentially have disabled the spacecraft.

Scientists were confident Cassini would not encounter any large ring particles, but they could not be certain and given the spacecraft's enormous velocity, the probe was oriented with its large dish antenna facing forward to act as a shield. This meant repositioning Cassini's antenna away from Earth, which caused controllers to temporarily lose signal with the unmanned probe.


We look forward to more hauntingly handsome photos from Saturn's atmosphere over the coming weeks; we'll take whatever we can get until Cassini becomes a ghost itself.

This countermeasure rendered the probe unable to contact Earth for a full 20 hours after passing through the ring plane, which occurred at 5 am EDT on April 26.

For scale, Saturn's moon Mimas (seen elsewhere in this photo gallery) is located lower left, just below the rings in this Cassini view.

Launched from Cape Canaveral on top of a Titan 4 rocket October 15, 1997, the Cassini spacecraft arrived in orbit around Saturn on July 1, 2004, to begin a planned four-year tour of the planet's moons. Because of the high risk, the unsafe dives could only occur at the end of Cassini's lifespan. But the craft has, this week, sent back a lovely new picture of the Earth, glimpsed through Saturn's rings.

Even though NASA has lost contact with Cassini at this time, as it is now moving through Saturn's rings, they expect to be back in touch with it by April 27, as The Independent reports.

The spacecraft will make 21 more such crossings, the next of which is scheduled for May 2. "From its launch in 1997 to the unique grand finale science of 2017, the Cassini-Huygens mission has racked up a remarkable list of achievements".

"While it's always sad when a mission comes to an end, Cassini's finale plunge is a truly spectacular end for one of the most scientifically rich voyages yet undertaken in our solar system".

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