Spacecraft flies between Saturn and rings in historic 1st

NASA's Cassini spacecraft begins 'Grand Finale' of Saturn mission

NASA's Cassini orbiter zoomed inside Saturn's rings overnight for the first time in its 20-year-long flight - and lived to tell about it. Cassini's fuel tank is nearly empty, so NASA has opted for a risky, but science-rich grand finale.

The unmanned Cassini is back in radio contact with Earth after entering the gap Wednesday in the first mission of its kind.

The spacecraft's final dives aim to offer a fresh look at the rings, potentially revealing more about their mass and whether they are old or new.

"No spacecraft has ever been this close to Saturn before".

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

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"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". Using the moon's gravity pull as a slingshot, Cassini will be attempting to use the change in velocity to plunge herself into the gap between Saturn and its rings.

After almost 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. From there it will plunge through the skies on September 15, marking the official termination of the mission.

There is no turning back now; Cassini is on a "ballistic trajectory", and its fate is sealed, NASA scientists have said.

The vortex is swirling inside "a large, mysterious, six-sided weather pattern known as the hexagon", NASA has said.

"With all of this activity related to the search for life, in so many different areas, we are on the verge of one of the most profound discoveries, ever", Zurbachen said.

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Raw imagery from the Cassini cameras were downlinked to Earth early Thursday, showing parts of Saturn's hexagonal hurricane at the north pole, and other atmospheric features. "Cassini will make some of its most fantastic discoveries at the end of its long life", NASA researcher Linda Spilker said.

For the past 12 years NASA's Cassini has been exploring Saturn and searching for signs of life on Saturn's moons. Its next dive through the gap is scheduled for May 2.

Unprocessed image of Saturn's atmosphere, taken on April 26th. The exact placement of Cassini's journey through the ring gap changes with each orbit.

Cassini has also collected data from Saturn moon Enceladus. Saturday's flyby with Titan was the mission's last opportunity to see the moon close-up.

Communications with the spacecraft will go dark during the dive and for about a day afterwards, while it makes scientific observations of the planet.

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Although only a sliver of Saturn's sunlit face is visible in this view taken by the spacecraft Cassini, the mighty gas giant planet still dominates the view. They said there was a chance Cassini could be damaged if the particle concentration had been denser than they expected.

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