Published: Fri, April 28, 2017
Research | By Elizabeth Houston

Cassini's first dive between Saturn and its rings successful

As Cassini moves nearer to the giant gaseous ringed planet over the next few months, the spacecraft will be able to take unprecedented close-up images.

Another raw image from NASA's Cassini spacecraft reveals streaks and other features in Saturn's atmosphere, caught during the spacecraft's plunge between the planet and its rings' inner edge.

About 10 minutes later, another set of signals confirmed that Cassini was beaming science and engineering data across more than 750 million miles of space from the Saturn system to Earth.

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.

But why is Cassini's voyage of any value to us here on Earth?

Cassini will make the second of 22 planned ring plane crossings May 2.

The first of them show sights never before seen - our closest images of the Saturn's atmosphere and a huge hurricane swooping across its surface. "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", Cassini project manager Earl Maize of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory explained in today's status update.

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Launched in October 1997, Cassini arrived at Saturn in July 2004 and dropped off a lander built by the European Space Agency that successfully completed a parachute descent to the surface of Titan the following January. NASA's models for the region suggest the particles in the area where Cassini passed through Wednesday were on the same scale as smoke, according to JPL.

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The blue arcs represent Cassini's orbits through Saturn's ring gap.

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.

But that, of course, means it can not also then talk to Earth at the same time. "Cassini will make some of its most wonderful discoveries at the end of its long life", NASA researcher Linda Spilker said.

Cassini will also conduct long-range observations of Saturn's moon Rhea and calibrate the craft's magnetometer for future magnetic field investigations. Saturday's flyby with Titan was the mission's last opportunity to see the moon close-up. NASA's Cassini spacecraft captured the view during its first Grand Finale dive past the planet on Wednesday. That information will help scientists better understand how the rings formed (which in turn can help them understand how all the planets formed from rings of material around the sun).

"If the rings are massive, this means that they are old". "Whenever we go where we haven't been before, we're probably going to be surprised".

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