NASA’s Cassini Saturn Mission Makes First Ring-Grazing Dive

First Posted: Dec 07, 2016 03:30 AM EST

NASA's Cassini probe has successfully made its first ring-grazing plunge past the outer edges of Saturn's rings according to the American space agency, NASA. The spacecraft traveled through the plane of Saturn's rings at a distance of around 91,000 kilometers above its cloud tops, an area that is just 11,000 kilometers away from the middle of Saturn's F ring and location of a dusty, faint ring produced by the planet's small moons Epimetheus and Janus.  

According to NASA, Cassini performed a short burn of its main engine that lasted for approximately six seconds, an hour before the ring-plane crossing. Half an hour later, while approaching the ring plane, the spacecraft shut its canopy-like engine cover as a protective measure. "With this small adjustment to the trajectory of the spacecraft, we are in excellent shape to make the most of this new phase of the mission," said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager.

The spacecraft started a complete scan across the rings of Saturn using its radio science experiment to observe their structure in a more detailed manner.  "It has taken years of planning, but now that we are finally here, the whole Cassini team is excited to begin studying the data that come from these ring-grazing orbits," said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at JPL. "This is a remarkable time in what's already been a thrilling journey."

The focus of the first ring-grazing plunge was observations by the science instruments aboard the Cassini and its engine maneuver. 20 ring-grazing orbits that will each last for a week and 22 plunges have been scheduled for the spacecraft, which will continue until April 22, 2017. During the dive, the spacecraft transmits data on Saturn's atmospheric composition. Incidentally, the Cassini mission, which was launched in 1997 and arrived at the Saturn system in 2004, has been scheduled to conclude next year on Sep. 15 with a final plunge into the ringed planet's atmosphere.

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