Spacecraft flies between Saturn and rings in historic 1st

Spacecraft flies between Saturn and rings in historic 1st

Part of what makes the dive so risky, AFP says, is that Cassini will be only 1,800 miles above Saturn and thus potentially in the path of nearby and quickly moving ice and space rocks.

This is the first of 22 scheduled dives between Saturn's innermost ring and and its uppermost atmosphere.

The Cassini mission has twice been extended, but the probe is now low on fuel. Because the fuel tank is practically empty, NASA decided on one last unsafe, but science-rich adventure.

The dive was the first event of Cassini's "Grand Finale", which will see it fly ever closer to Saturn until it is destroyed by its own atmosphere. The milestones that have been completed and that are immediately expected are as follows.

On April 12, days before it made its final flyby of Titan, Cassini captured an incredible image of earth glimmering through Saturn's rings, serving as a gentle reminder of how far it's come since the beginning of its journey.

"In this orientation, the antenna acts as a protective shield for Cassini's instruments and engineering systems".

The final mission, according to NASA, involves a "daring" series of dives (22 in total) between Saturn and its icy rings, and ends with Cassini plunging into Saturn's atmosphere in its final orbit in September.

Earlier in April, NASA announced that Cassini had found more evidence that the ocean underneath Enceladus could contain life.

At 2 a.m. Pacific time on Wednesday, Cassini started its dive between the planet and its rings, losing radio contact with Earth momentarily. The probe is expected to reemerge and reconnect at approximately 3:00 a.m. EDT on Thursday.

The historic event was also featured in a Google Doodle Wednesday.

Cassini was launched in October 1997 by NASA in collaboration with with the European Space Agency.

But the payoff for the tense wait could be huge, as it could show scientists details of Saturn and its wide but shallow rings that they have never seen before.

Cassini mission project manager Earle Maise said the risk puts them at a 97 percent chance of success.

He anticipates that the material that Cassini will travel through will only be made up of extremely small particles, nearly like smoke. Getting closer to the planet will allow Cassini to take its mass without factoring in the rings, according to a Vox report.

Cassini probe is nearing the end of its 20-year mission to explore Saturn. Debris raining down onto either ecosystem would introduce contamination.

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