NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has successfully executed its daring dive through the 1,500-mile-wide gap between Saturn and its rings, the first time a man-made object has navigated through the icy halo that hugs the gas giant.
Controllers operating the Deep Space Network antenna in Goldstone, California confirmed data collected during its passage was being received from the probe just after 8:00 a.m. GMT (3:00 a.m. ET) on Thursday.
“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 NASA’s Planetary Science Division in a statement.
This meant repositioning Cassini’s antenna away from Earth, which caused controllers to temporarily lose signal with the unmanned probe.
“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 Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
“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.”
The unprecedented gap-run was the first of 22 weekly dives Cassini will undertake between April and September, traveling at a top speed of more than 76,800 mph (120,000 kph).
As it zipped through the gap, the probe traveled to within 1,900 miles (3,000 kilometers) of Saturn’s cloud tops (where air pressure is similar to the atmospheric pressure of Earth at sea level), and within about 200 miles (300 kilometers) of the innermost visible edge of the rings, NASA said.
Now that engineers have reacquired the probe’s signal, they will evaluate data from this first dive and make tweaks to the orbit and trajectory to ensure the craft is protected ahead of future dives.
During these final revolutions around Saturn — which take around seven days — Cassini will return pioneering scientific data which scientists hope will help them decipher how giant planets evolve.
It will also collect a wealth of information including detailed maps of Saturn’s gravity and magnetic fields, which could answer questions surrounding the speed of Saturn’s rotations.