As a ‘grand finale’ to its 20-year mission, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft ventured Wednesday into the never-before-explored region between Saturn and its rings.
But flight controllers won’t know how everything went until Thursday when they are back in touch with the craft.
Cassini was out of radio contact with Earth as it became the first spacecraft to enter the gap between Saturn and its rings. That’s because its big dish antenna was maneuvered face forward to protect science instruments from potentially damaging particles in the rings. The antenna could sustain minor damage like a small hole and still function properly, according to officials.
“We’re in a waiting period right now,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division. “We won’t know for a number of hours until Cassini gets in a position where it can radio back home, and so that’s one of those things that keeps us on pins and needles.”
PHOTOS: NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn
Click on any image to open full-screen gallery.
According to NASA, as Cassini plunges past Saturn, the spacecraft will collect some incredibly rich and valuable information that was too risky to obtain earlier in the mission:
- The spacecraft will make detailed maps of Saturn’s gravity and magnetic fields, revealing how the planet is arranged internally, and possibly helping to solve the irksome mystery of just how fast Saturn is rotating.
- The final dives will vastly improve our knowledge of how much material is in the rings, bringing us closer to understanding their origins.
- Cassini’s particle detectors will sample icy ring particles being funneled into the atmosphere by Saturn’s magnetic field.
- Its cameras will take amazing, ultra-close images of Saturn’s rings and clouds.
If Cassini survives this first round, it will make 21 more crossings before its demise in September. The gap between Saturn’s atmosphere and its rings is relatively narrow: 1,200 miles, or 1,900 kilometers.
“We’re all crossing our fingers saying, ‘Oh, geez, I hope we hear from it’ — and we will,” added guidance and control engineer Joan Stupik.
NASA Cassini spacecraft grazing the rings of Saturn
On November 30, 2016 – NASA’s Cassini spacecraft began the daring set of ring-grazing orbits, skimming past the outside edge of Saturn’s main rings. During its last year in operation, Cassini is performing the closest study of the rings and offering unprecedented views of moons that orbit near them. Even more dramatic orbits ahead will bring Cassini closer to Saturn than any spacecraft has dared to go before.
NASA animation of Cassini’s ‘Grand Finale’
Launched in 1997, Cassini has been orbiting Saturn since 2004. Because the fuel tank is practically empty, NASA decided on one last dangerous, but science-rich adventure.
Story from The Associated Press with additional information from NASA.