Cassini Spacecraft Successfully Dives Between Saturn and Its Rings

Spacecraft Flies Between Saturn and Rings in Historic 1st

The spacecraft shot the gap for the first time early Wednesday, passing within just 1,900 miles of Saturn's cloud tops - and a scant 200 miles from the visible edge of the innermost rings - at a velocity of some 77,000 miles per hour, fast enough to fly across 375 football fields, end to end, in one second.

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.

If everything goes to plan, the spacecraft will offer the closest-ever views of Saturn's rings - but first NASA faces a nail-biting wait.

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".

"No spacecraft has ever been this close to Saturn before".

Throughout each dive, Cassini will use its onboard scientific instruments to take readings that will give scientists unprecedented data on Saturn's atmosphere and the composition of the rings.

The spacecraft flew through the ring plane at 77,000 miles per hour (124,000 kph) relative to the planet, and at that speed tiny particles could have posed a large threat to its sensitive instruments without the shielding.

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The spacecraft zipped through this region at speeds of about 124,000 kph relative to the planet, so small particles hitting a sensitive area could potentially have disabled the spacecraft. Because Cassini scientists and engineers didn't know what to expect of the gap - although it looked clear, unknown dust and debris could have proved harmful - the spacecraft was turned so its 13-foot-wide (4 meter) antenna acted as a shield as it dove, collecting data all the while.

Scientists also hope to have more data regarding Saturn's atmosphere and its interior structure. They're aiming to make 22 ring dives in all - before the mission concludes (hence the "grand finale" moniker).

For today's maneuver, the craft crossed the ring plane as it moved from north to south across Saturn.

"Cassini spacecraft has once again blazed a trail, showing us new wonders and demonstrating where our curiosity can take us if we dare", National Aeronautics and Space Administration planetary sciences chief Jim Green said in a statement.

Among the photos sent back by Cassini is a unique view of Earth as seen from Saturn, in what was hailed as a new perspective of our "pale blue dot" in space. The Cassini spacecraft was launched by the American space agency on October 15, 1997. Following its last close flyby of the large moon Titan on April 21, Cassini began what mission planners call its "Grand Finale".

NASA's Deep Space Network made contact with the spacecraft shortly before midnight Wednesday after almost 20 hours of expected loss of contact.

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