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.
The unprocessed images show features in Saturn's atmosphere from closer than ever before. The craft was able to capture a few close images of Saturn's surface during its first dive, but the team will be able to take more calculated risks in the upcoming dives and capture awesome observations of the planet's surface and inner rings the likes of which we have never seen before.
NASA's Cassini spacecraft made its first dive between Saturn and its rings early Wednesday, as the final act in a almost 20-year mission.
The gap between the planet and its rings "is a region no spacecraft has ever explored", NASA said.
"We're guaranteed to end up in Saturn's atmosphere in September", said Scott Edgington, Cassini deputy project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.
"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. (One was almost as wide as Earth.) It also hosts winds among the fastest in the solar system - NASA's Voyager missions, which passed Saturn in 1980 and 1981, measured winds at more than 1,100 miles per hour (1,800 kph).
Cassini is travelling through the gap at a relative speed of about some 77,000 miles per hour (124,000 kph) so even small particles striking the spacecraft can be deadly.
Cassini was out of contact with Earth as the spacecraft passed inside Saturn's rings at 0900 GMT (5 a.m. EDT) Wednesday, using its high-gain dish antenna as a shield against icy particles engineers feared could lurk in its path. The antenna had been oriented away from Earth. Even more dramatic orbits ahead will bring Cassini closer to Saturn than any spacecraft has dared to go before.
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NASA's Cassini will now be shifting in and out of Saturn's rings 22 times over many months before it eventually hits Saturn's atmosphere and burns up completely.
Once inside, Cassini will complete 22 ring gap orbits before making the final leap and diving into Saturn's atmosphere. Because of the high risk, the risky dives could only occur at the end of Cassini's lifespan.
The blue arcs represent Cassini's orbits through Saturn's ring gap.
The spacecraft will make 21 more such crossings, the next of which is scheduled for May 2.
The spacecraft's final dives aim to offer a fresh look at the rings, potentially revealing more about their mass and whether they are old or new.
Cassini, launched in 1997, has been orbiting Saturn since 2004, providing data about the planet and its moons. Cassini's controlled destruction is meant to make sure there's no contamination of the planet's mysterious moons, such as ice-covered Europa.
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.