Cassini's first dive between Saturn and its rings successful

Terry Joseph
April 28, 2017

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has successfully executed its daring dive through the 1,500-mile-wide gap between Saturn and its rings, the first time a man-made object has navigated through the icy halo that hugs the gas giant.

A spacecraft that was built in part at the University of Iowa is maneuvering to make the first of its final orbits around Saturn this week.

Now the spacecraft is transmitting science and engineering data from the dive back to NASA, which will give the Cassini team enough info to plan the second dive, slated for May 2.

The spacecraft came within about 1,900 miles (3,000 kilometers) of Saturn's cloud tops and within 200 miles (300 km) of the rings' innermost visible edge during the plunge, NASA officials said in a statement.

Now in its final laps around Saturn, Cassini dove through the narrow gap between the planet and its innermost ring on Wednesday, where no spacecraft has ever gone before.

"No spacecraft has ever been this close to Saturn before", Cassini project manager Earl Maize of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, was quoted by the agency as saying.

All went according to the plan, Maize said, adding that after its dive, the craft that's now been in space for almost 20 years "has come out the other side in excellent shape". Using the moon's gravity pull as a slingshot, Cassini will be attempting to use the change in velocity to plunge herself into the gap between Saturn and its rings. NASA's models for the region suggest the particles in the area where Cassini passed through Wednesday were on the same scale as smoke, according to JPL.

Cassini's first dive between Saturn and its rings successful

But why is Cassini's voyage of any value to us here on Earth?

The spacecraft is on a trajectory that will cause it to plunge into Saturn's atmosphere - ending Cassini's mission - on September 15, 2017, the statement said. "What's more, Cassini captures Earth while also capturing Saturn's rings".

Cassini made the first of its 22 dives into Saturn's rings, an event that Google celebrated by releasing a Doodle.

Cassini arrived at Saturn back in 2004, and has been sending back data on the planet and its myriad moons ever since.

After almost 20 years in space and 13 years in orbit around Saturn, NASA's Cassini spacecraft begins its grand finale, going where no craft has gone before. "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". Data from this first dive will help engineers understand if and how they will need to protect the spacecraft on its future ring-plane crossings.

Some scientists believe that rings could have formed after asteroids smashed into some of Saturn's moons, creating a trail of debris.

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.

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