Published: Fri, April 28, 2017
Sci-tech | By Doreen King

Cassini Spacecraft Re-Establishes Contact After 'Dive' Between Saturn And Its Rings

The Cassini spacecraft is sending data back to Earth after diving in between Saturn's rings and cloudtops.

So the space agency made a decision to use its high-gain antenna ― a 13-foot-wide dish that Cassini uses to communicate with Earth ― as a shield, turning it away from our planet as it protected the vessel. Cassini was out of contact for about 22 hours.

Cassini descended below the ring plane around 5 a.m. ET Wednesday, but the antenna it would normally use to send images is instead being used to deflect potentially harmful objects away from its instruments.

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.

But managers took no chances with Wednesday's flyby, pivoting the spacecraft to point its 13-foot (4-meter) radio antenna in its direction of travel to take the brunt of any debris impacts, which could have damaged or destroyed the probe.

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The agency was confident that Cassini would pass through the gap successfully, but mission managers but took extra precautions as even the smallest ring particle could have disabled the spacecraft.

"No spacecraft has ever flown through this unique region", NASA administrator Thomas Zurbuchen said.

"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".

Cassini's closest approach to Saturn came at a distance of about 1,900 miles (3,000 kilometers) from the planet's cloud tops.

Launched in 1997, Cassini has been orbiting Saturn since 2004.

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Even though NASA has lost contact with Cassini at this time, as it is now moving through Saturn's rings, they expect to be back in touch with it by April 27, as The Independent reports.

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. They're using the close encounters with Saturn and its rings to take what they describe as "unprecedented measurements" of its atmospheric composition and interior structure.

Cassini's next dive through the gap is scheduled for May 2.

Cassini will be taking direct samples of ring particles, as well as samples of Saturn's innermost radiation belts and upper atmosphere.

For scale, Saturn's moon Mimas (seen elsewhere in this photo gallery) is located lower left, just below the rings in this Cassini view. "Our closest look ever at #Saturn's atmosphere and giant hurricane", NASA officials wrote in a Twitter post. The exact placement of Cassini's journey through the ring gap changes with each orbit. Cassini's controlled destruction is meant to make sure there's no contamination of the planet's mysterious moons, such as ice-covered Europa. NASA's Cassini will draw its last breath as it eventually breaks up and melts completely and becomes part of Saturn. That information will help scientists better understand how the rings formed (which in turn can help them understand how all the planets formed from rings of material around the sun).

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The unprocessed image above was acquired toward the start of the dive at 7:49 a.m. on April 26, 2017. "We'll do this by measuring the mass of the rings very accurately".

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