Saturn Looks Haunted in Cassini's First Grand Finale Photos

Posted April 28, 2017

Cassini is expected to be out of contact for about a day after this first dive while it takes detailed observations of Saturn and the ring gap, NASA officials said in a statement.

The animated Google Doodle showed a cute cartoon Cassini taking photos of a smiling Saturn while plunging through its rings.

The unprocessed image above was acquired toward the start of the dive at 7:49 a.m. on April 26, 2017.

"In the grandest tradition of exploration, Cassini has once again blazed a trail, showing us new wonders and demonstrating where our curiosity can take us if we dare", said Dr. Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

NASA's Cassini mission has forayed into a region where no spacecraft has ever ventured before - between Saturn and its rings. U-I research scientist Bill Kurth says Cassini is now positioned to zoom very close to the ringed planet's atmosphere, skimming the cloudtops of an unexplored region which should produce a wealth of new data. This image taken by the spacecraft shows Saturn's rotating storm clouds over the planet's north pole.

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

The spacecraft flew through the ring plane at 77,000 miles per hour (124,000 kph) relative to the planet, and at that speed tiny particles could have posed a large threat to its sensitive instruments without the shielding.

So the space agency chose 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. In the wee hours of the morning, Cassini whizzed through the space at 77,000 mph (124,000 kph), collecting all sorts of data on this unchartered territory.

A second dive between Saturn and its rings is scheduled for May 2.

In February, scientists observing the TRAPPIST-1 star system with NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope announced the discovery of seven probably rocky Earth-sized planets, three of which might be able to support life.

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One of Cassini's instruments, the radio and plasma wave subsystem, was programmed to collect data on the size and density of ring particles encountered by the spacecraft during Wednesday's approach.

During its historic 20-year journey, Cassini has observed jets of water containing organic chemicals (including hydrogen) from one of Saturn's moons, which has led scientists to believe there could be microbes using chemical energy to produce methane and energy for life, Vox reported.

The spacecraft is on a trajectory that will eventually plunge into Saturn's atmosphere - and end Cassini's mission - on September 15. This meant that it was out of contact with Earth during the descent.

"We have a saying in space flight", said Erick Sturm, lead mission planner for Cassini.

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