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Cassini dives between Saturn and its rings

The Guardian logo The Guardian 28/04/2017 Stuart Clark

Related: NASA's Cassini Probe Goes Where No Spacecraft Has Gone Before (Newsy)

Nasa’s Cassini spacecraft has plunged between Saturn and its rings. This is the first pass in a sequence of 22 weekly dives that will result in the destruction of the spacecraft on 15 September.

The mission has been orbiting Saturn since 2004, studying the planet, its rings and moons in unprecedented detail. Recently, it discovered that the ocean inside the moon Enceladus has the conditions necessary for life.

The rings of Saturn are composed of dust, pebbles and boulders. They are likely to be leftovers from the planet’s formation more than 4bn years ago.

Cassini prepares for its historic plunge. © EPA Cassini prepares for its historic plunge. During the plunge, in which Cassini approached a speed of 80,000mph relative to Saturn, it broke contact with Earth as planned. Nasa’s Deep Space Network of antennae regained contact with the spacecraft’s signal at 7.56 BST on 27 April and data began flowing down a few minutes later.

Cassini had a previous close encounter with the rings upon its arrival in 2004. Then it passed through a gap between two of the outer rings, using its high-gain antenna as a shield to protect it against the ring particles. Mission operators employed the same tactic this week.

The data collected from this plunge will allow planners to determine what other precautions should be taken in the ensuing dives.

This new sequence of orbits will lower Cassini’s orbit until it burns up in Saturn’s atmosphere in the autumn. The spacecraft will transmit science readings back to Earth during that fiery plunge.

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