Published: Fri, April 28, 2017
Research | By Francis Brooks

Spacecraft Cassini Set to Make Final Orbits Around Saturn

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

Cassini is "showing us new wonders and demonstrating where our curiosity can take us if we dare", said Jim Green, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division.

The gap between Saturn's rings and the top of its atmosphere is only 1,500 miles wide, and Cassini was hurtling through at 77,000 miles-per-hour relative to the planet, according to NASA.

NASA's Cassini mission has forayed into a region where no spacecraft has ever ventured before - between Saturn and its rings.

"I am delighted to report that Cassini shot through the gap just as we planned and has come out the other side in excellent shape", he added. "Our closest look ever at #Saturn's atmosphere and giant hurricane", NASA officials wrote in a Twitter post. Using the moon's gravity pull as a slingshot, Cassini will be attempting to use the change in velocity to plunge herself into the gap between Saturn and its rings. "Based on our models we expect this gap to be free of particles that would be big enough to do damage to our spacecraft", NASA project manager Earl Maize said.

Cassini is travelling through the gap at a relative speed of about some 77,000 miles per hour (124,000 kph) so even small particles striking the spacecraft can be deadly.

More than 100 members of the Cassini team and their families were assembled in JPL's Von Karman Auditorium to await the data and received it exultantly when it arrived from more than 750 million miles away.

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"We hope to get a measurement of the core mass, how many heavy elements are concentrated in the interior of Saturn", said Iess.

The Cassini spacecraft has recently managed to manoeuvre itself between Saturn's upper atmosphere and its rings. The spacecraft also enabled scientists to learn that Titan features many things that could conceivably make life possible there, like seas, rain, and wind.

One of Cassini's instruments, the radio and plasma wave subsystem, was programmed to collect data on the size and density of ring particles encountered by the spacecraft during Wednesday's approach.

The 22-foot-tall (6.7 meter) spacecraft launched in 1997 and began orbiting Saturn in 2004. The Grand Finale has been created to prevent the spacecraft from contaminating the potentially habitable Saturnian moons.

Cassini made the first of its 22 dives into Saturn's rings, an event that Google celebrated by releasing a Doodle.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft moving between Saturn and its rings. Diving between Saturn's rings will start on Wednesday and the little spaceship will be taking pictures of whatever it can as it passes through the giant sheets of icy debris.

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.

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