Cassini survives first dive beneath Saturn’s rings


The NASA spacecraft has sent back images from its closest approach ever to the gas giant’s atmosphere. Richard A. Lovett reports.


A raw image from Cassini’s dive showing a vortex at Saturn’s North Pole.
all images NASA/JPL

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft began the final phase of its 20-year mission last night, diving through a narrow gap between Saturn’s cloud tops and the inner edge of its rings at a speed of 124,000 kilometers per hour.

It was the first of 22 such dives, dubbed the mission’s Grand Finale. Collectively, they will produce one more round of scientific findings, even though the spacecraft has run out of manoeuvering fuel.

Close encounters will occur about once a week until 15 September, when Cassini will plunge to a fiery death in the giant planet’s atmosphere.

Although the risk of hitting a stray ring particle bigger than a fleck of dust was small, the spacecraft was turned away from Earth during the flyby so it could use its 4-metre antenna as a shield. It soon turned back to Earth, however, and began beaming back data, including the closest-ever images of Saturn’s turbulent atmosphere.

The next fly-by will be on 2 May. Check out the excitement at at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) mission control in Pasadena, California here.

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NASA/JPL
NASA/JPL
NASA/JPL
NASA/JPL
NASA/JPL
NASA/JPL

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Contrib ricklovett.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1
Richard A. Lovett is a Portland, Oregon-based science writer and science fiction author. He is a frequent contributor to COSMOS.