NASA received word on April 26th that the Cassini spacecraft survived the first trip part of its mission’s Grand Finale. Cassini performed a dive between the top of Saturn’s clouds and its innermost rings at 2:00 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time. Then, it started sending back data to the agency at 12:01 p.m. PDT.
NASA officials sent the spacecraft 1,900 miles above the cloud tops and 190 miles below the inner edge of Saturn’ s rings. They did so to gather information about the gap. Cassini was running at 77,000 mph (124,000 km/h) relative to Saturn.
At that speed, even bumping into a little debris can cause serious damage. Consequently, the spacecraft used its high-gain antenna as a shield. Because of this, it couldn’t report to its handlers while it dove. This is also why it was supposed to make contact 20 hours after the plunge.
This Should Be the First of 21 Dives Part of its Grand Finale
The Cassini spacecraft, part of the Cassini-Huygens mission, has been in the Saturn system and sending data to Earth since 2004. It’s running out of fuel now, and it is supposed to crash land into Saturn on September 15th. NASA plans on sending Cassini on 21 more dives. These are all part of its Grand Finale, a final mission before its “death plunge”. The 21 more plunges should take place at a week’s distance from one another.
This first dive is already adding details to the bigger picture of the Saturn system. Cassini already brought back news of oceans on Enceladus. It also informed about water ice geysers and liquid hydrocarbons on Titan. Researchers, however, could only guess about the contents of the space between Saturn’s clouds and its rings. These
Researchers, however, could only speculate about the contents of the space between Saturn’s clouds and its rings. These dives will fill in that blind spot. At least according to Earl Maize, the manager of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
He said: “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.”
Cassini’s first dive was a great start to its Grand Finale stage. The spacecraft made it between the innermost rings and Saturn’s atmosphere without damage, and will, with luck, bring a more complete picture of Saturn.
Image Source: JPL/NASA