NASA spacecraft Cassini is sending signals back to Earth after its highly complicated dive through the gap between Saturn and its rings. It was the first of 22 planned dives.
NASA confirmed on early Thursday, that spacecraft Cassini has started sending data back to Earth after its complicated maneuver. The control center at NASA's Deep Space Network Goldstone Complex in California's Mojave Desert received the first signal four minutes before midnight local time on Thursday night. At that time it was 8:56 am Thursday morning in Central Europe. Shortly afterwards a stream of data started flowing back to the control center.
"In the grandest tradition of exploration, NASA's Cassini spacecraft has once again blazed a trail, showing us new wonders and demonstrating where our curiosity can take us if we dare," said Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
No spacecraft was ever closer to Saturn and its rings
During the flight through the gap between Saturn and its rings, Cassini came within 3,000 kilometers (1,865 miles) of the uppermost clouds of the Saturn atmosphere. There, the air pressure is about 1 bar - the same as it is on Earth at sea level. The distance to the innermost of the Saturn rings was only 300 Kilometers.
Cassini has already sent down the first pictures from its mission.
"No spacecraft has ever been this close to Saturn before," said Cassini Project Manager Earl Maize of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "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."
The gap between Saturn and its rings is about 2,000 kilometers wide. The researchers believed that possible particles in that region would not be much bigger than smoke particles. But even at that size, they could have damaged the spacecraft, which is travelling at a speed of 124,000 kilometers (77,050 miles) per hour.
Using the dish-antenna as a shield
During the dive, Cassini was protecting itself by using its large dish antenna as a shield against potential dust particles. That's why the spacecraft had no contact to Earth during the maneuver. The next dive is planned for May 2.
If everything works out as planned, NASA will conduct a total of 22 flights through the gap between Saturn and its rings by September 15. Then, in what will be Cassini's great finale, the spacecraft will descend even deeper into Saturn's atmosphere and eventually burn up.