Friday, 23 June, 2017

Spacecraft survives unprecedented trip between Saturn, rings

Cassini Spacecraft Starts Weaving Between Saturn And Its Rings NASA's Cassini spacecraft begins 'Grand Finale' of Saturn mission
Heather Davidson | 28 April, 2017, 01:48

NASA's Cassini spacecraft sent the closest-ever images of Saturn on Thursday after surviving its first plunge inside the planet's rings, the USA space agency said.

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.

Expect more information about the makeup of Saturn's rings, as well as details from the planet itself, as NASA parses the data Cassini sends back.

Images from NASA's Cassini spacecraft shows the closest-ever views of Saturn's swirled atmosphere and its massive hurricane.

He said Cassini had "shot through the gap just as we planned and has come out the other side in excellent shape".

The thing with moving at such terrific speeds is that even if the spacecraft had collided with particles from Saturn's rings - it would have resulted in permanent and disabling injury.

The rings around Saturn - a gas giant that is second in size in our solar system only to Jupiter - are thousands of miles (kilometers) wide, but only 30 to 300 feet (nine to 90 meters) deep. NASA's models for the region suggest the particles in the area where Cassini passed through Wednesday were on the same scale as smoke, according to JPL.

The spacecraft zipped through this region at speeds of about 77,000 miles per hour so small particles hitting a sensitive area could potentially have disabled the spacecraft, the statement said.

For extra care, Cassini used its dish-shaped antenna as a shield, which put it out of contact with Earth during the crossing, but it reconnected 20 hours later. Scientists say the pictures show details never seen before - there's an incredible close-up, for instance, of the very big swirling hurricane at Saturn's north pole.

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Saturn's rings are made up of countless icy particles, any of which could have smacked Cassini during its hazardous dive.

The mission was out of radio contact with Earth as it plunged into Saturn's rings on Wednesday.

Launched from Cape Canaveral on top of a Titan 4 rocket October 15, 1997, the Cassini spacecraft arrived in orbit around Saturn on July 1, 2004, to begin a planned four-year tour of the planet's moons.

Passing through Saturn's rings: Cassini's last mission Life away from Earth? Its next dive through the gap is scheduled for May 2.

"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", Jim Green, NASA's director of planetary science, said in the agency's post-crossing statement.

The decision to end Cassini's mission was made in 2010, as scientists feared the spacecraft could crash into and damage moons like Enceladus, which could be explored for signs of life in the future.

Cassini, which was launched in 1997, arrived at Saturn in 2004.

Cassini is running low on fuel, and will make a death plunge into Saturn's surface on September 15.

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