Spacecraft flies between Saturn and rings in historic 1st

27 April, 2017, 01:42 | Author: Lorena Waters
  • Earth Spotted as point of light from Saturn's Icy Rings by Cassini

"Cassini's up-close exploration of Titan is now behind us, but the rich volume of data the spacecraft has collected will fuel scientific study for decades to come", Linda Spilker, Cassini's project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement. During the plunge, Cassini was gathering as much data as possible, as well as using its antenna as a shield to protect the vehicle against any potentially risky particles. They will look at data from the Cassini's instruments once it gets back in touch, to find out the size and density of any particles and to understand whether the same move needs to be done in the future.

Using its dish-shaped antenna as a shield against potentially damaging space particles, the Cassini plunged through the gap between Saturn and its rings. The antenna could sustain minor damage like a small hole and still function properly, according to officials.

"What a spectacular end to a spectacular mission", said Jim Green, the director of NASA's planetary science division, according to CBS News.

Nasa has lost contact with Cassini, the little spacecraft that is now flying through Saturn's rings. On September 15, at the end of the grand finale phase - the grand finale's grand finale - Cassini will make one final dive into Saturn's atmosphere. Launched in 1997, Cassini reached Saturn in 2004 and has been exploring it from orbit ever since.

The rings around Saturn - a gas giant that is second in size in our solar system only to Jupiter - are thousands of kilometres wide, but only nine to 90 metres deep.

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"We're all crossing our fingers saying, "Oh, geez, I hope we hear from it" - and we will", added guidance and control engineer Joan Stupik.

Some of the data that Cassini is poised to beam in its final days should help shed more light on the origins of Saturn's rings. Following a final close flyby of Saturn's moon Titan, Cassini will leap over the planet's icy rings and begin a series of 22 weekly dives between the planet and the rings. Because the fuel tank is practically empty, NASA decided on one last risky, but science-rich adventure.

Some scientists believe that rings could have formed after asteroids smashed into some of Saturn's moons, creating a trail of debris. Consider it a cosmic carousel with countless rings up for grabs.

Cassini [full name: Cassini-Huygens] is a spacecraft sent to Saturn to take pictures of and gather measurements and information about the planet and its atmospheric conditions. "The spacecraft is now on a ballistic path, so that even if we were to forgo future small course adjustments using thrusters, we would still enter Saturn's atmosphere on September 15 no matter what".

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