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

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An unmanned NASA spacecraft, Cassini, is poised to plunge into the gap between Saturn and its rings, a pioneering journey that could offer an unprecedented view of the sixth planet from the Sun.

Alongside harvesting vast quantities of scientific data and some close-up imagery of Saturn's atmosphere, the experience will allow mission operators to further plan how to keep the spacecraft safe for the remaining 21 passes.

Cassini's first successful dive is part of what NASA is calling the "Grand Finale".

The spacecraft came within about 1,900 miles (3,000 kilometers) of Saturn's cloud tops and within 200 miles (300 km) of the rings' innermost visible edge during the plunge, NASA officials said in a statement.

Researchers were confident Cassini would make it through the rings without issue, but still took extra care with the dive since it was the first time the area was ever explored.

All went according to the plan, Maize said, adding that after its dive, the craft that's now been in space for almost 20 years "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.

To protect itself, the spacecraft used its large, dish-shaped high-gain antenna, which has a diameter of 13 feet, as a shield, orienting it in the direction of oncoming ring particles, it said. This meant repositioning Cassini's antenna away from Earth, which caused controllers to temporarily lose signal with the unmanned probe.

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To ensure the probe does not someday crash into a moon like Enceladus, where a subsurface ocean may provide an abode for life, NASA managers chose to put Cassini on a trajectory that will culminate in a mission-ending plunge into Saturn's atmosphere on September 15.

The spacecraft radioed home around 0700 GMT (3 a.m. EDT) Thursday, around 22 hours after zipping between Saturn's D ring and the planet's cloud tops at a relative speed of about 77,000 mph (124 kilometers per hour), fast enough to travel from NY to Los Angeles in less than two minutes. Because of the high risk, the risky dives could only occur at the end of Cassini's lifespan. The spacecraft will make similar manoeuvres during its subsequent dives, the next of which is scheduled for Tuesday. "From its launch in 1997 to the unique grand finale science of 2017, the Cassini-Huygens mission has racked up a remarkable list of achievements".

But it is now back in touch with Earth and sending images through space.

After nearly 20 years of calling space home, NASA's Cassini Spacecraft will embark on its final performance before completing what has been dubbed in the spacing world the "Grand Finale".

Once inside, Cassini will complete 22 ring gap orbits before making the final leap and diving into Saturn's atmosphere.

For scale, Saturn's moon Mimas (seen elsewhere in this photo gallery) is located lower left, just below the rings in this Cassini view.