This story was updated at 7 AM today:
FROM NPR: NASA’s Cassini spacecraft re-established contact with ground controllers shortly before 3 a.m. ET after passing through the gap between Saturn and the planet’s rings. NASA says the probe is now beaming back data gathered during the ‘dive.’
Cassini was out of contact as it began its journey into the gap because the spacecraft’s dish antenna was used as a shield to protect it from possible damage from ring particles. The antenna had been oriented away from Earth. Cassini was out of contact for about 22 hours.
In a NASA statement, the project manager said all had gone as hoped:
” ‘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,’ said Cassini Project Manager Earl Maize of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. ‘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.’ “
Early story from Scientific America: Running low on fuel, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has begun the final — and most daring — phase of its epic mission to Saturn.
After using a final flyby of the moon Titan on Friday to boost its speed, Cassini was flung by the moon’s gravity to a trajectory that sent it diving through the 1,200-mile (1,930 kilometers) gap between the planet’s upper atmosphere and innermost rings, NASA officials said.
Cassini completed the first crossing of the ring plane at about 2 a.m. PDT (5 a.m. EDT, or 0900 GMT) Wednesday, the space agency said in a statement. [Cassini’s “Grand Finale” at Saturn in Pictures]
This final journey will end Sept. 15 when the spacecraft burns up in Saturn’s crushing atmosphere. There is no turning back now; Cassini is on a “ballistic trajectory,” and its fate is sealed, NASA scientists have said. The Grand Finale has been designed to prevent the spacecraft from contaminating the potentially habitable Saturnian moons.
“We’re guaranteed to end up in Saturn’s atmosphere in September,” said Scott Edgington, Cassini deputy project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. “If we get hit by a particle [during the first dive] that disables the spacecraft, we are still guaranteed to end up in Saturn,” he told Space.com.
Cassini is expected to be out of contact for about a day after this first dive while it takes detailed observations of Saturn and the ring gap, NASA officials said in a statement. The earliest the spacecraft is expected to check in is 12:05 a.m. PDT (3:05 a.m. EDT, or 0705 GMT) on Thursday (April 27), and it should return data and images soon after.
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