NASA spacecraft completes first-ever dive between Saturn and its rings
After 13 years in orbit around Saturn, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has completed the first stage of its most daring mission yet – diving into the narrow gap between the planet and its rings.
In an update posted online, NASA confirmed that its Deep Space Network Gladstone Complex (DSN) in California’s Mojave Desert made contact with Cassini at 2:56 a.m. ET on Thursday, and started receiving data from the spacecraft a few minutes later.
Jim Green, the director of the Planetary Science Division at Washington’s NASA headquarters, said the breathtaking images of Saturn’s atmosphere that Cassini transmitted will allow scientists to study a never-before-explored region of the solar system.
“In the grandest tradition of exploration, NASA's Cassini spacecraft has once again blazed a trail, showing us new wonders and demonstrating where our curiosity can take us if we dare," Green said in the online post.
According to NASA, Cassini travelled within approximately 300 kilometres of Saturn’s innermost visible ring edge and within approximately 3,000 kilometres of the planet’s cloud tops.
Project Manager Earl Maize said the spacecraft was in excellent shape following the dive.
“No spacecraft has ever been this close to Saturn before,” Maize said in a statement. “We could only rely on predictions, based on our experience with Saturn's other rings, of what we thought this gap between the rings and Saturn would be like.”
Andrew Fazekas, a columnist for National Geographic, told CTV News Channel that Cassini’s dives may shed some light on the origin of the rings.
“The origins of the rings is a great mystery,” Fazekas said. “These dives between the planet and the rings hope to help answer some of those mysteries.”
The gap between the rings and the top of Saturn’s atmosphere is approximately 2,000-kilometres wide, which meant NASA scientists were concerned that small, ring particles floating in Saturn’s atmosphere might strike Cassini and damage it.
To reduce the risk, Cassini used its large, dish-shaped antenna as a shield from any ring particles. That is why NASA temporarily lost radio contact with Cassini during the manoeuvre that marks the first phase of Cassini’s so-called “Grand Finale.”
In the coming months, the aging spacecraft will undertake 21 more dives between Saturn and its rings, collecting information, making detailed maps of the planet’s gravity and magnetic fields, sampling icy ring particles and taking “ultra-close” images of the rings and atmosphere.
Then, it will take a final mission-ending plunge into Saturn's atmosphere on Sept. 15, 2017.
According to NASA, it’s necessary to destroy Cassini because it is running low on rocket fuel, meaning operators on Earth will eventually lose control of the spacecraft anyway.
Cassini was launched in 1997, and has been orbiting Saturn since 2004. Its next dive is scheduled for May 2.