Its Cassini spacecraft just gave Earth another first in space exploration: It passed through the narrow gap between Saturn and its rings on Wednesday, then relayed stunning photographs of the planet's atmosphere and invaluable data back to Terra.
Once Cassini has made the crossings through the 2,400-km gap, it will transition into its grand finale orbit - taking it through a close flyby of Saturn's massive moon, Titan. 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 incredible observations of the planet's surface and inner rings the likes of which we have never seen before. However, according to NASA, flight controllers will not get an update about how the dive fared until later today, when contact with Cassini is regained.
As it dived through the gap, Cassini came within about 3,000 kilometres of Saturn's cloud tops and within about 300 kilometres of the innermost visible edge of the rings.
"No spacecraft has ever been this close to Saturn before", Earl Maize, the Cassini project manager, said in a statement.
Saturn's C ring isn't uniformly bright, as seen from the spacecraft Cassini. (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.
The spacecraft zipped through this region at speeds of about 77,000 miles per hour so small particles hitting a sensitive area could potentially have disabled the spacecraft, the statement said. The spacecraft was oriented so its antenna would shield the scientific instruments from damage.
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NASA's Cassini spacecraft dove between Saturn and its rings yesterday (April 26), snapping the closest-ever views of Saturn's atmosphere.
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.
Passing through Saturn's rings: Cassini's last mission Life away from Earth? "Cassini will make some of its most awesome discoveries at the end of its long life", NASA researcher Linda Spilker said.
The final dives will vastly improve our knowledge of how much material is in the rings, bringing us closer to understanding their origins. Earlier this month, for example, mission scientists reported finding evidence of what they think is hydrogen gas coming from sub-sea vents on one of Saturn's ice-covered moons, Enceladus, which has liquid water under its icy surface, that they say could provide the energy required to support life forms such as microbes.
After 13 years of Cassini orbiting the planet, "Saturn continues to surprise us", Pitesky said.