The Saturn-studying Cassini spacecraft triumphed through its first daring dive between the planet and its famous rings on Wednesday.
The craft shot through the narrow gap and came within 1,900 miles (3,000 kilometers) of Saturn’s clouds.
“No spacecraft has ever been this close to Saturn before,” Cassini Project Manager Earl Maize of NASA said. “We could only rely on predictions, based on our experience with Saturn’s other rings, of what we thought this gap between the rings and Saturn would be like.”
Maize added that Cassini came through “in excellent shape.”
On Thursday, NASA released several unprocessed images captured during the flight, which give us our closest-ever view of Saturn’s atmosphere.
NASA had been confident Cassini would make it through the first historic dive but took the precaution of aiming the spacecraft’s dish-like high-gain antenna to act as a shield against ring particles. This also created a situation in which Cassini was out of contact with mission control for a while.
Cassini is scheduled to conduct a total of 22 close flybys for its “grand finale.” The next will occur on May 2. The spacecraft will ultimately dive to its doom in Saturn’s atmosphere in September. The mission, which launched in 1997, is a joint project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency.
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