NASA's Cassini spacecraft survived its first-ever dive through the narrow gap between Saturn and its rings on Wednesday, April 26, 2017, and is back in contact with Earth.
Cassini is now in the process of beaming back science and engineering data collected during its passage. NASA's Deep Space Network Goldstone Complex in California's Mojave Desert acquired Cassini's signal at 12:56 a.m. EDT on April 27 and data began flowing at 3:01 a.m. EDT.
While NASA scientists were confident Cassini would pass through the gap successfully, they took extra precautions with this first dive because the region had never been explored.
The gap between the rings and the top of Saturn's atmosphere is about 1,500 miles (2,000 kilometers) wide. The best models for the region suggested that if there were ring particles in the area where Cassini crossed the ring plane, they would be tiny, on the scale of smoke particles. The spacecraft zipped through this region at speeds of about 77,000 mph (124,000 kph) relative to the planet, so small particles hitting a sensitive area could potentially have disabled the spacecraft.
As a protective measure, the spacecraft used its large, dish-shaped high-gain antenna (13 feet or 4 meters across) as a shield, orienting it in the direction of oncoming ring particles. This meant that the spacecraft was out of contact with Earth during the ring-plane crossing, which took place at 5 a.m. EDT on April 26. Cassini was programmed to collect science data while close to the planet and turn toward Earth to make contact about 20 hours after the crossing.
"No spacecraft has ever been this close to Saturn before. We could only rely on predictions, based on our experience with Saturn's other rings, of what we thought this gap between the rings and Saturn would be like," said Cassini Project Manager Earl Maize of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "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."
As it dove through the gap, Cassini came within about 1,900 miles (3,000 kilometers) of Saturn's cloud tops (where the air pressure is 1 bar -- comparable to the atmospheric pressure of Earth at sea level) and within about 200 miles (300 kilometers) of the innermost visible edge of the rings.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute