Spacecraft survives unprecedented trip between Saturn, rings

On Wednesday, April 26, 2017, NASA's Cassini spacecraft successfully made its first dive through the narrow gap between the giant planet Saturn and its rings.

Alongside harvesting vast quantities of scientific data and some close-up imagery of Saturn's atmosphere, the experience will allow mission operators to further plan how to keep the spacecraft safe for the remaining 21 passes.

Images captured by Cassini spacecraft during its first "Grand Finale" dive past the planet have also been published.

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

The gap between Saturn's rings and the top of its atmosphere is only 1,500 miles wide, and Cassini was hurtling through at 77,000 miles-per-hour relative to the planet, according to NASA.

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"I am delighted to report that Cassini shot through the gap just as we planned and has come out the other side in excellent shape", said Maize.

This final journey will end September 15 when the spacecraft burns up in Saturn's crushing atmosphere.

The rings around Saturn - a gas giant second in size in our solar system only to Jupiter - are thousands of kilometres wide, but only around nine to 90 metres deep.

It zipped through the region at about 124,000 km/h, meaning that if small particles floating near the rings had hit a sensitive area of the spacecraft, it could potentially have been disabled.

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.

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"We hope to get a measurement of the core mass, how many heavy elements are concentrated in the interior of Saturn", said Iess. The spacecraft is supposed to fly in between Saturn and its rings 22 times tonight - and take lots of pictures while doing it.

The final dives will vastly improve our knowledge of how much material is in the rings, bringing us closer to understanding their origins. During its previous year in operation, Cassini is performing the closest study of the rings and offering unprecedented views of moons that orbit near them. That's why the spacecraft had no contact to Earth during the maneuver. But Cassini has used up just about all of its propellant and once it runs out, the spacecraft will no longer be controllable.

During Cassini's next trip near Saturn on May 2, the spacecraft's science instruments will look at ringlets embedded within the main rings while the sun is hidden behind the planet, a viewing geometry that makes faint ring features more visible.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency.

NASA extended the almost $3.3 billion Cassini mission multiple times, and officials in 2010 announced plans for the spacecraft to jump inside Saturn's rings this year before heading into the atmosphere in September.

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A tiny model of Cassini at JPL at press conference detailing Cassini's Grand Finale mission April 4.

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