NASA's Cassini spacecraft has re-established contact with Earth following its historic first dive between Saturn's surface and its iconic ring system. The flyby was the closest that any spacecraft has ever got to the atmosphere of the gas giant, and the probe is currently busy beaming back images and science data collected during the event.
Cassini has now entered the final phase of its operational life, known as the Grand Finale. This last mission will see the probe perform a total of 22 daredevil passes between Saturn's atmosphere and its innermost ring – a gap of only 1,500 miles (2,000 km).
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Upon completing its final lap the spacecraft will be commanded on Sep. 15 to fly directly into the surface of Saturn, which will allow the probe to collect precious data on the atmosphere of the gas giant.
The first dive saw Cassini pass within 1,900 miles (3,000 km) of Saturn's uppermost cloud layer, and around 200 miles (300 km) from its innermost visible ring. Mission controllers took extra precautions to shield the spacecraft from any hazards it could conceivably face while traversing the little-known region of space. This included orientating its 4 meter (13 ft) dish-shaped antenna toward oncoming particles in order to protect the suit of scientific instruments tasked with collecting data on the planet during the 77,000 mph (124,000 kph) flyby.
This countermeasure rendered the probe unable to contact Earth for a full 20 hours after passing through the ring plane, which occurred at 5 am EDT on Apr. 26. Thankfully, Cassini survived the event in perfect working order, with NASA's Deep Space Network acquiring the probe's signal at 2:56 am EDT this morning.
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.
"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," comments Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters, Washington.
Cassini's next dive is scheduled to occur on May 2, and thereafter on a weekly basis.
Source: NASAView gallery - 4 images