Cassini successfully dives between Saturn and its rings

This artist's rendering shows NASA's Cassini spacecraft above Saturn's northern hemisphere, heading toward its first dive between Saturn and its rings on April 26, 2017.

The unprocessed images show features in Saturn's atmosphere from closer than ever before.

"In the grandest tradition of exploration, NASA's Cassini spacecraft has once again blazed a trail, showing us new wonders and demonstrating where our curiosity can take us if we dare", NASA's planetary science director Jim Green said.

"No spacecraft has ever been this close to Saturn before", said Earl Maize of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Some of those passages will bring Cassini even closer to the planet as well as the innermost D ring.

The gap between the rings and the top of Saturn's atmosphere is about 1,500 miles (2,000 km) wide. Models suggested that Saturn's ring particles still exist in that gap ― they would be small, "on the scale of smoke particles" but it wouldn't take much to wreak havoc on sensitive technology that's zipping along at Cassini's speed.

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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.

For extra care, Cassini used its dish-shaped antenna as a shield, which put it out of contact with Earth during the crossing, but it reconnected 20 hours later.

A 230-foot (70-meter) antenna at NASA's Deep Space Network facility in Goldstone, California, received the first signal from Cassini early Thursday.

Scientists say the pictures show details never seen before, including a big swirling hurricane at Saturn's north pole. "What's more, Cassini captures Earth while also capturing Saturn's rings".

The gap between Saturn and its rings is about 2,000 kilometers wide. Cassini's controlled destruction is meant to make sure there's no contamination of the planet's mysterious moons, such as ice-covered Europa. Although this will end the spacecraft, Saturn's moons will be protected. Meanwhile, Google honored the Cassini probe with a Doodle for its "Grand Finale".

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Early story from Scientific America: Running low on fuel, NASA's Cassini spacecraft has begun the final - and most daring - phase of its epic mission to Saturn.

NASA's Deep Space Network made contact with the spacecraft shortly before midnight Wednesday after almost 20 hours of expected loss of contact.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft re-established contact with ground controllers shortly before 3 a.m. ET after passing through the gap between Saturn and the planet's rings.

"While it's always sad when a mission comes to an end, Cassini's finale plunge is a truly spectacular end for one of the most scientifically rich voyages yet undertaken in our solar system".

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