NASA successfully pilots spacecraft between Saturn and its rings

"We did it! Cassini is in contact with Earth and sending back data after a successful dive through the gap between Saturn and its rings", NASA announced on Cassini's Twitter account at 12:09 a.m. after receiving the first status update on Cassini's health.

NASA plans to crash the spacecraft into Saturn to avoid any chance Cassini could someday collide with any ocean-bearing moons that have the potential to support indigenous microbial life. The view was captured by NASA's Cassini spacecraft during its first Grand Finale dive past the planet on April 26, 2017.

According to NASA, the gap "between the rings and the top of Saturn's atmosphere" is roughly 1,500 miles (2,000 kilometers) wide.

Giovanni Domenico Cassini, an Italian mathematician and astronomer born in 1625, was the first person to notice the division of the rings of Saturn in 1675.

"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", he added.

Signals received by the Deep Space Network's Goldstone radio antenna in California confirmed that the bus-sized spacecraft survived its closest-ever encounter with the ringed planet.

Throughout each dive, Cassini will use its onboard scientific instruments to take readings that will give scientists unprecedented data on Saturn's atmosphere and the composition of the rings.

It zipped through the region at about 124,000 km/h, meaning that if small particles floating near the rings had hit a sensitive area of the spacecraft, it could potentially have been disabled. Because Cassini scientists and engineers didn't know what to expect of the gap - although it looked clear, unknown dust and debris could have proved harmful - the spacecraft was turned so its 13-foot-wide (4 meter) antenna acted as a shield as it dove, collecting data all the while. Even more dramatic orbits ahead will bring Cassini closer to Saturn than any spacecraft has dared to go before.

The spacecraft was programmed to collect science data while close to the gas giant and turn toward Earth to make contact about 20 hours after the crossing. Cassini's controlled destruction is meant to make sure there's no contamination of the planet's mysterious moons, such as ice-covered Europa. Its next dive through the gap is scheduled for May 2. But the craft has, this week, sent back a attractive new picture of the Earth, glimpsed through Saturn'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".

The 5,500-pound craft has sent back a wealth of information about Saturn and its moons, from water geysers erupting on Enceladus to the incredible hydrocarbon lakes on Titan.

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

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