NASA's Cassini spacecraft phones home after daring Saturn encounter

On Wednesday April 26, the Cassini spacecraft did something extraordinary: It slipped through the gap between Saturn and its rings, becoming the first spacecraft ever to explore this region.

This unprocessed image shows features in Saturn's atmosphere from closer than ever before.

Science and engineering data collected during the spacecraft's passage is being beamed back via NASA's Deep Space Network Goldstone Complex in California's Mojave Desert, JPL reported. The trajectory took Cassini around 200 miles (300 kilometers) from the visible edge of Saturn's innermost D ring, and pictures showed no sign of any icy ring particles in the craft's path.

"No spacecraft has ever been this close to Saturn before".

"We are just ecstatic", project science engineer Jo Pitesky said by phone from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The best models for the region had suggested that if there were ring particles in the area where Cassini crossed the ring plane, they would be tiny, on the scale of smoke particles.

As a precaution, Cassini's high-gain antenna dish was turned into the rush of particles to serve as a shield, and that meant the spacecraft had to be out of communication during the critical phase of the crossing.

The unmanned Cassini is back in radio contact with Earth after entering the gap Wednesday in the first mission of its kind. It was the first of 22 planned close encounters to bring the robotic probe into unexplored territory between Saturn's cloud tops and its rings.

Cassini's next dive is scheduled to occur on May 2, and thereafter on a weekly basis.

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Cassini is now set for the end of its many missions as its propellant tanks, which are in place to adjust the course of the spacecraft, are nearly completely empty right now.

But that, of course, means it can not also then talk to Earth at the same time.

Many mysteries of Saturn remain to be determined: the exact length of its day and internal structure, as well as the exact composition and age of its rings, could become clear over the course of Cassini's explorations.

Cassini will complete 21 more dives before its Grand Finale plunge and burn-up in Saturn's atmosphere September 15 - its next dive is May 2.

Cassini has been in orbit around Saturn since 2004 and its discoveries have changed our understandings of Saturn's moons, particularly their potential for bearing life.

Virtually out of gas after 13 years orbiting the gas giant, Cassini is finishing up its enormously successful $3.9 billion mission by repeatedly shooting the gap between the planet and its rings, collecting a final set of unprecedented close-range data before crashing into Saturn's atmosphere in September.

"While it's always sad when a mission comes to an end, Cassini's finale plunge is a truly spectacular end for one of the most scientifically rich voyages yet undertaken in our solar system".

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