In death dive, Cassini snaps Earth within Saturn's rings

NASA's Cassini spacecraft sent the closest-ever images of Saturn on Thursday after surviving its first plunge inside the planet's rings, the US space agency said. The view was captured by the spacecraft during its first Grand Finale dive past the gas giant on April 26, 2017. The raw images, which began to stream back early this morning, indicating the probe had survived its journey, show intricate structures and a dark, swirling storm-like feature (which NASA called a "giant hurricane").

The first dive saw Cassini pass within 1,900 miles (3,000 km) of Saturn's uppermost cloud layer, and around 200 miles (300 km) from its innermost visible ring.

The trip took it closer to the top of Saturn's atmosphere than any spacecraft had been before.

"We are just ecstatic", project science engineer Jo Pitesky said by phone from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

He said Cassini had "shot through the gap just as we planned and has come out the other side in excellent shape".

NASA's Cassini-Huygens spacecraft was created with the bold of spirit of adventure in mind, which will soon see it descending into Saturn's innermost ring.

The spacecraft zipped through this region at speeds of about 124,000 kph relative to the planet, so small particles hitting a sensitive area could potentially have disabled the spacecraft.

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The scientists running the Cassini mission had to hold their breath for a while yesterday while they waited to see if the craft had successfully navigated the gap - as an extra precaution they had oriented its dish-shaped antenna in the direction of the oncoming ring particles to act as a shield, meaning the spacecraft was out of contact with Earth during the ring-plane crossing.

More than 100 members of the Cassini team and their families were assembled in JPL's Von Karman Auditorium to await the data and received it exultantly when it arrived from more than 750 million miles away. The images actually show clouds in Saturn's northern hemisphere. Cassini will leap over the planet's icy rings and begin a series of 22 weekly dives between the panel and its rings. This meant that it was out of contact with Earth during the descent.

In February, scientists observing the TRAPPIST-1 star system with NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope announced the discovery of seven probably rocky Earth-sized planets, three of which might be able to support life. The spacecraft will make similar manoeuvres during its subsequent dives, the next of which is scheduled for Tuesday.

The decision to end Cassini's mission was made in 2010, as scientists feared the spacecraft could crash into and damage moons like Enceladus, which could be explored for signs of life in the future.

Cassini was launched in 1997; its mission is slated to end one month before the 20-year mark.

The blue arcs represent Cassini's orbits through Saturn's ring gap.

Now, almost out of fuel, the spacecraft will make the 21 remaining weekly dives as part of a "Grand Finale" that will culminate in September in Cassini plunging into Saturn's atmosphere to meet its demise.

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