After the Cassini spacecraft plunged between Saturn and its inner-most rings on Wednesday, mission scientists waited anxiously Wednesday night for a message from the robotic probe that it had survived. Finally, at 2:56am ET on Thursday, Cassini made contact via NASA’s Deep Space Network Goldstone Complex in California’s Mojave Desert and sent back some preliminary data and images.
It had come through its initial close encounter with Saturn unscathed, flying to within 3,000km of the gas giant’s cloud tops, where the air pressure is comparable to that on the surface of Earth. The probe also “grazed” the innermost, visible edge of Saturn’s ring system by flying within about 300km. No spacecraft had flown so close to Saturn or these rings, so scientists weren’t sure it would survive.
NASA scientists were exultant. “In the grandest tradition of exploration, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has once again blazed a trail, showing us new wonders and demonstrating where our curiosity can take us if we dare,” said Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
This was the first of the spacecraft’s 22 “dives” through the gap between Saturn and its closest rings, which will occur roughly once per week. On this trajectory, on September 15, the long-lived Cassini spacecraft will fly silently into the planet’s atmosphere, ending its mission.
Listing image by NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute