NASA's Cassini completes first dive between Saturn's rings

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Launched in 1997, Cassini reached Saturn in 2004 and has been exploring it from orbit ever since.

The unprocessed image above was acquired toward the start of the dive at 7:49 a.m. on April 26, 2017. 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 trajectory took Cassini around 200 miles (300 kilometers) from the visible edge of Saturn's innermost D ring, and pictures showed no sign of any icy ring particles in the craft's path.

The agency was confident that Cassini would pass through the gap successfully, but mission managers but took extra precautions as even the smallest ring particle could have disabled the spacecraft.

He said Cassini had "shot through the gap just as we planned and has come out the other side in excellent shape". It will also be able to study the planet's magnetic field, the composition of the rings, and Saturn's northern and southern "lights" or auroras, which are similar to those above Earth. (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). "Based on our models we expect this gap to be free of particles that would be big enough to do damage to our spacecraft", NASA project manager Earl Maize said.

In its first dive Wednesday morning around 5 a.m., Cassini used its high-gain antenna as a protective shield as it passed through the ring plane.

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"We hope to get a measurement of the core mass, how many heavy elements are concentrated in the interior of Saturn", said Iess. Cassini will leap over the planet's icy rings and begin a series of 22 weekly dives between the panel and its rings.

Launched from Cape Canaveral on top of a Titan 4 rocket October 15, 1997, the Cassini spacecraft arrived in orbit around Saturn on July 1, 2004, to begin a planned four-year tour of the planet's moons.

"Cassini spacecraft has once again blazed a trail, showing us new wonders and demonstrating where our curiosity can take us if we dare", National Aeronautics and Space Administration planetary sciences chief Jim Green said in a statement. "Cassini will make some of its most unbelievable discoveries at the end of its long life", NASA researcher Linda Spilker said. The death dive that has been engineered to ensure that any Earth microbes on the spacecraft do not contaminate the Saturn system, especially its moons Enceladus and Titan that have been found to have the potential to support life.

Cassini's latest adventure is a swansong for the spacecraft, as it is running low on fuel, and will make a death plunge into Saturn's atmosphere on September 15.

Cassini will complete 21 more dives before its Grand Finale plunge and burn-up in Saturn's atmosphere September 15 - its next dive is May 2.

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