'Giant Hurricane' on Saturn: 1st Images Back from Cassini's Epic Ring Dive

'Giant Hurricane' on Saturn: 1st Images Back from Cassini's Epic Ring Dive

"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.

A spacecraft that was built in part at the University of Iowa is maneuvering to make the first of its final orbits around Saturn this week.

Science and engineering data collected during the spacecraft's passage is being beamed back via NASA's Deep Space Network Goldstone Complex in California's Mojave Desert, JPL reported.

NASA's Cassini mission has forayed into a region where no spacecraft has ever ventured before - between Saturn and its rings. Dr Earl Maize, who is Cassini's program manager, has said that the mission will be ending soon, as scientists do not wish to risk having the spacecraft accidentally crashing into Saturn's moons and harming any possible life that could be lingering there.

"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.

The thing with moving at such terrific speeds is that even if the spacecraft had collided with particles from Saturn's rings - it would have resulted in permanent and disabling injury. (One was almost as wide as Earth.) It also hosts winds among the fastest in the solar system - NASA's Voyager missions, which passed Saturn in 1980 and 1981, measured winds at more than 1,100 miles per hour (1,800 kph).

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As a precaution, Cassini's high-gain antenna dish was turned into the rush of particles to serve as a shield, and that meant the spacecraft had to be out of communication during the critical phase of the crossing.

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". Getting closer to the planet will allow Cassini to take its mass without factoring in the rings. Diving between Saturn's rings will start on Wednesday and the little spaceship will be taking pictures of whatever it can as it passes through the giant sheets of icy debris.

Another raw image from NASA's Cassini spacecraft reveals streaks and other features in Saturn's atmosphere, caught during the spacecraft's plunge between the planet and its rings' inner edge. It is now embarking on what mission planners are calling its "grand finale". The Cassini spacecraft was launched by the American space agency on October 15, 1997.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency.

Launched from Cape Canaveral on top of a Titan 4 rocket October 15, 1997, the Cassini spacecraft arrived in orbit around Saturn on July 1, 2004, to begin a planned four-year tour of the planet's moons.

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