Published: Fri, April 28, 2017
Research | By Chelsea Rogers

U.S. spacecraft shares first view from inside Saturn's rings

The move is the first in what NASA is calling Cassini's Grand Finale, as it weaves its way between Saturn and its rings in a series of 22 dives that will culminate in what the agency describes as "a science-rich plunge into Saturn's atmosphere on September 15".

Skimming Saturn at an altitude of about 1,800 miles (3,000 kilometers), the spacecraft will be closer than ever to the band of ice and space rocks that circle Saturn.

Images captured by Cassini spacecraft during its first "Grand Finale" dive past the planet have also been published. Cassini's fuel tank is nearly empty, so NASA has opted for a risky, but science-rich grand finale.

Now in its final laps around Saturn, Cassini dove through the narrow gap between the planet and its innermost ring on Wednesday, where no spacecraft has ever gone before.

The gap between the rings and the top of Saturn's atmosphere is about 2,000 kilometres wide. (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).

The spacecraft zipped through this region at speeds of about 77,000 mph (124,000 km per hour) relative to the planet, so small particles hitting a sensitive area could potentially have disabled the orbiter.

The scientists running the Cassini mission had to hold their breath for a while yesterday while they waited to see if the craft had successfully navigated the gap - as an extra precaution they had oriented its dish-shaped antenna in the direction of the oncoming ring particles to act as a shield, meaning the spacecraft was out of contact with Earth during the ring-plane crossing.

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You can hardly tell it's there, but the arrow in this wide angle shot taken by Cassini marks our Earth - a tiny dot because the picture was taken from very, very far away.

As of Thursday morning, more than 100 images had arrived from Saturn.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft ventured Wednesday into the never-before-explored region between Saturn and its rings.

1 of Saturn's 62 moons, Mimas' big crater Herschel lies near the moon's limb in this Cassini view. The Cassini spacecraft was launched by the American space agency on October 15, 1997. The photos it took from the space between Saturn and its rings, which have just been released, are nothing short of breathtaking.

Following its last close flyby of the large moon Titan on April 21, Cassini began what mission planners are calling its "Grand Finale".

During Cassini's next trip near Saturn on May 2, the spacecraft's science instruments will look at ringlets embedded within the main rings while the sun is hidden behind the planet, a viewing geometry that makes faint ring features more visible.

Engineers were confident the spacecraft would make the trek through the ring gap unscathed.

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