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NASA's Cassini spacecraft poised to plunge beneath Saturn's rings

28 April 2017

Cassini is "showing us new wonders and demonstrating where our curiosity can take us if we dare", said Jim Green, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division.

NASA says that Cassini came within around 1,900 miles of Saturn's cloud tops and within about 200 miles of the innermost visible edge of the rings as it made the manoeuvre.

The Cassini spacecraft survived the first of 22 dives between Saturn and its rings, NASA announced early Thursday.

During its flight through uncharted territory, Cassini will collect new data about Saturn, including its internal arrangement based on the planet's gravity and magnetic fields, how much material is in its icy rings and the spacecraft will, of course, deliver "ultra-close" images of Saturn's rings and clouds.

"We are just ecstatic", project science engineer Jo Pitesky said by phone from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory 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", he added.

The raw images are being fed into a photo stream on NASA's website, and while they lack detailed captions and annotations, they provide entrancing views of the planet's complex atmosphere.

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.

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But the team didn't take any chances, using Cassini's wide, dish-shaped antenna (13 feet across) as a makeshift shield against any particles from the rings that could impact the craft and cause damage.

While this did afford some protection to Cassini, the spacecraft was out of touch with earth and had to make the crossing on its own.

"With all of this activity related to the search for life, in so many different areas, we are on the verge of one of the most profound discoveries, ever", Zurbachen said. Its next dive through the gap is scheduled for May 2.

If things go according to plan, Cassini's life will end on September 15.

Early story from Scientific America: Running low on fuel, NASA's Cassini spacecraft has begun the final - and most daring - phase of its epic mission to Saturn. Cassini's controlled destruction is meant to make sure there's no contamination of the planet's mysterious moons, such as ice-covered Europa. That's why the spacecraft had no contact to Earth during the maneuver.

When Cassini has finished its mission, it will perform its "grand finale" and crash into the planet's surface to ensure its moons remain uncontaminated by any Earth microbial stowaways that may have hitched a ride.

The robotic spacecraft was launched in 1997 and was originally created to spend four years orbiting Saturn.

There is no turning back now; Cassini is on a "ballistic trajectory", and its fate is sealed, NASA scientists have said.