Cassini phones home after dive between Saturn and rings

On Wednesday April 26, the Cassini spacecraft did something extraordinary: It slipped through the gap between Saturn and its rings, becoming the first spacecraft ever to explore this region.

This unprocessed image acquired by the Cassini spacecraft is the closest view ever of the giant hurricane that swirls around Saturn's north pole.

While mission managers were confident Cassini would pass through the gap successfully, they took extra precautions with this first dive, as the region had never been explored.

As Cassini moves nearer to the giant gaseous ringed planet over the next few months, the spacecraft will be able to take unprecedented close-up images.

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".

Signals received by the Deep Space Network's Goldstone radio antenna in California confirmed that the bus-sized spacecraft survived its closest-ever encounter with the ringed planet. "Based on our models we expect this gap to be free of particles that would be big enough to do damage to our spacecraft", NASA project manager Earl Maize said.

Cassini captured the images over the past 24 hours - but it couldn't send them back to Earth until early Thursday, because the craft was using its 13-feet-wide antenna as a deflector shield to protect it from ice and rock particles.

More than 100 members of the Cassini team and their families were assembled in JPL's Von Karman Auditorium to await the data and received it exultantly when it arrived from more than 750 million miles away.




Saturn's atmosphere is relatively cool and mostly made of hydrogen, and the pressure at Saturn's cloud tops is about the same as Earth's pressure at sea level, NASA said.

NASA's Cassini orbiter zoomed inside Saturn's rings overnight for the first time in its 20-year-long flight - and lived to tell about it.

But that, of course, means it can not also then talk to Earth at the same time.

Another raw image from NASA's Cassini spacecraft reveals streaks and other features in Saturn's atmosphere, caught during the spacecraft's plunge between the planet and its rings' inner edge. It may be nearing its end, but the Cassini spacecraft isn't done yet.

"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".

"In the grandest tradition of exploration, NASA's Cassini spacecraft has once again blazed a trail, showing us new wonders and demonstrating where our curiosity can take us if we dare", Jim Green, NASA's director of planetary science, said in the agency's post-crossing statement. The death dive that has been engineered to ensure that any Earth microbes on the spacecraft do not contaminate the Saturn system, especially its moons Enceladus and Titan that have been found to have the potential to support life.

On July 1, 2004, seven years after it was first launched, the Cassini-Huygens reached its final destination of Saturn where it has remained orbiting the planet to this day.

Following its last close flyby of the large moon Titan on April 21, Cassini began what mission planners are calling its "Grand Finale".

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