U.S. spacecraft shares first view from
inside Saturn's rings
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[April 28, 2017]
By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) - NASA's
Cassini spacecraft sent the closest-ever images of Saturn on Thursday
after surviving its first plunge inside the planet's rings, the U.S.
space agency said.
A stream of pictures showing Saturn's swirling clouds, massive hurricane
and odd six-sided vortex weather system were transmitted back to Earth
by Cassini, which has been exploring Saturn for 13 years.
Now in its final laps around Saturn, Cassini dove through the narrow gap
between the planet and its innermost ring on Wednesday, where no
spacecraft has ever gone before. It was the first of 22 planned close
encounters to bring the robotic probe into unexplored territory between
Saturn's cloud tops and its rings.
"Cassini spacecraft has once again blazed a trail, showing us new
wonders and demonstrating where our curiosity can take us if we dare,"
National Aeronautics and Space Administration planetary sciences chief
Jim Green said in a statement.
Cassini is expected to photograph several small inner moons and study
the planet's winds, clouds, auroras and gravity. The information could
help scientists find the source of Saturn's magnetic field, determine
how fast the gas giant rotates and figure out what lies beneath its
layers of clouds.
NASA officials are not certain Cassini will survive all its ring dives.
The gap between Saturn and the rings is about 1,500 miles (2,400 km)
wide and likely littered with ice particles.
Cassini is traveling through the gap at a relative speed of about some
77,000 mph (124,000 kph) so even small particles striking the spacecraft
can be deadly.
To protect itself, Cassini's dish-shaped communications antenna was
temporarily repositioned to serve as a shield. The spacecraft will make
similar maneuvers during its subsequent dives, the next of which is
scheduled for Tuesday.
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Saturn's atmosphere seen closer than ever before was captured by
NASA's Cassini spacecraft during its first Grand Finale dive past
the planet on April 26 and released on April 27, 2017. Courtesy
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/Handout via REUTERS
On its final dive on Sept. 15, Cassini is slated to destroy itself
by flying directly into Saturn's crushing atmosphere.
During its first pass inside the rings, Cassini came within about
1,900 miles (3,000 km) from the top of Saturn's clouds and within
200 miles (300 km) of its innermost ring.
Cassini has been probing Saturn, the sixth planet from the sun, and
its entourage of 62 known moons since July 2004, but is running low
NASA plans to crash the spacecraft into Saturn to avoid any chance
Cassini could someday collide with any ocean-bearing moons that have
the potential to support indigenous microbial life.
(Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by Letitia Stein and Jonathan
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