• NASA's Cassini spacecraft starts historic dive between Saturn and its rings

    By: Fiza Pirani, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

    Updated:

    After nearly 20 years in space and 13 years in orbit around Saturn, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft begins its grand finale, going where no craft has gone before.

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    The final mission, according to NASA, involves a “daring” series of dives (22 in total) between Saturn and its icy rings, and ends with Cassini plunging into Saturn’s atmosphere in its final orbit in September.

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    In its first dive Wednesday morning around 5 a.m., Cassini used its high-gain antenna as a protective shield as it passed through the ring plane.

    According to NASA, the first images of Cassini’s opening dive should be available early Thursday morning.

    The historic event was also featured in a Google Doodle Wednesday.

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    During its flight through uncharted territory, Cassini will collect new data about Saturn, including its internal arrangement based on the planet’s gravity and magnetic fields, how much material is in its icy rings and the spacecraft will, of course, deliver “ultra-close” images of Saturn’s rings and clouds.

    Even in its final moments on Sept. 15, as Cassini meets its demise by burning up like a meteor and becoming a part of the planet itself, scientists will receive real-time data about Saturn’s composition.

    But scientists say there is one concern about the possibility of flying particles tripping up the entire spacecraft, the Los Angeles Times reported.

    Though models of Saturn show the narrow region between the planet and its rings should be free of dust, the models could be wrong — that’s why Cassini’s high-gain antenna was used as a protective shield in its first dive.

    Cassini mission project manager Earle Maise said the risk puts them at a 97 percent chance of success.

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    During its historic 20-year journey, Cassini has observed jets of water containing organic chemicals (including hydrogen) from one of Saturn’s moons, which has led scientists to believe there could be microbes using chemical energy to produce methane and energy for life, Vox reported.

    And that’s just one of several remarkable achievements.

    But with Cassini running low on rocket fuel and the risk of it potentially colliding with two of Saturn’s moons, NASA has chosen to “safely dispose of the spacecraft in the atmosphere of Saturn.”

    More about Cassini’s Grand Finale here.

    More about Cassini’s Grand Finale at Saturn.jpl.nasa.gov.

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