NASA's Cassini Orbiter Makes First 'Grand Finale' Dive

Adjust Comment Print

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.

Cassini is "showing us new wonders and demonstrating where our curiosity can take us if we dare", said Jim Green, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division. The spacecraft was oriented so its antenna would shield the scientific instruments from damage. "We won't know for a number of hours until Cassini gets in a position where it can radio back home, and so that's one of those things that keeps us on pins and needles".

These two images show banding and cloud features in Saturn's atmosphere.

"We are just ecstatic", project science engineer Jo Pitesky said by phone from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

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. The 12,600-kilogramm spacecraft will start its controlled plunge toward Saturn 20 years after the mission began - and it will keep sending data to Earth until the very end.

Models suggested that if any particles were present where Cassini flew, they would be similar in size to microscopic smoke particles, according to NASA.

Missing some content? Care to comment? During its past year in operation, Cassini is performing the closest study of the rings and offering unprecedented views of moons that orbit near them.

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.

This final journey will end September 15 when the spacecraft burns up in Saturn's crushing atmosphere. "Cassini will make some of its most incredible discoveries at the end of its long life", NASA researcher Linda Spilker said.

Cassini is now set for the end of its many missions as its propellant tanks, which are in place to adjust the course of the spacecraft, are nearly completely empty right now.

Cassini dropped a European probe on Saturn's massive moon Titan and revealed its surface of methane liquid seas, including a complex system of methane rain and runoff. NASA's Cassini will draw its last breath as it eventually breaks up and melts completely and becomes part of Saturn.

Images captured by Cassini spacecraft during its first "Grand Finale" dive past the planet have also been published. These are the first to show Saturn's moons and rings, Earth, Venus and Mars all in one shot.

Cassini mission project manager Earle Maise said the risk puts them at a 97 percent chance of success. "Whenever we go where we haven't been before, we're probably going to be surprised".