We did it! Cassini is in contact with Earth and sending back data after a successful dive through the gap between Saturn and its rings.
" 'No spacecraft has ever been this close to Saturn 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 unbelievable observations of the planet's surface and inner rings the likes of which we have never seen before. Cassini and its little buddy, the Huygens probe, has already gathered a laundry list of critical data from Saturn and its largest moon, Titan, which is "one of the most Earth-like worlds we've ever encountered", NASA reports.
The first dive is part of Cassini's grand finale, which NASA says is a six-month "daring" set of orbits it likened to a whole new mission, including 22 weekly dives between Saturn and its rings.
"No spacecraft has ever been this close to Saturn before", Cassini project manager Earl Maize of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, was quoted by the agency as saying.
The gap between the rings and the top of Saturn's atmosphere is about 2,000 kilometres wide. (Unprocessed means dust and other photographic artifacts are still in the shot.) What they represent is extraordinary: Photographs taken just 1,900 miles above Saturn's atmosphere, while traveling at a speed of 77,000 mph relative to Saturn.
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. The antenna had been oriented away from Earth.
Cassini's cameras were to capture a series of images of features in Saturn's atmosphere, scientists said, returning views 10 times sharper than previously available.
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NASA's Cassini spacecraft ventured Wednesday into the never-before-explored region between Saturn and its rings.
Cassini has also collected data from Saturn moon Enceladus. It may be nearing its end, but the Cassini spacecraft isn't done yet.
Computer modeling showed that any concentration of ring particles in the gap between the visible rings and the clouds should be no more dense than smoke, but mission planners had no way of knowing for sure.
Cassini was launched in 1997 and arrived at Saturn in 2004. But the craft has, this week, sent back a handsome new picture of the Earth, glimpsed through Saturn's rings.
If everything works out as planned, NASA will conduct a total of 22 flights through the gap between Saturn and its rings by September 15.
Cassini has now entered the final phase of its operational life, known as the Grand Finale.
Many mysteries of Saturn remain to be determined: the exact length of its day and internal structure, as well as the exact composition and age of its rings, could become clear over the course of Cassini's explorations.