A few minutes before midnight in California, Cassini called home.
The spacecraft had been out of contact with Earth for about 41 hours, its large antenna pointed away from its home planet. This happens a few times a week as Cassini collects data around Saturn, fills up its recorders, and then turns back to stream the information across the solar system. But this stretch of silence was different. This time, after 13 years in Saturn’s orbit, Cassini was conducting a brand-new maneuver: diving into the narrow gap between Saturn and its innermost rings, a place where no spacecraft has gone before.
So scientists were relieved when Cassini pinged back.
“We had a very good night,” Earl Maize, the Cassini project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, wrote in an email at about 2:45 a.m. Thursday. “The flight team had actually built up to quite a bit of anticipation heading into tonight and was very excited to have the spacecraft come through its first dive through the gap unscathed.”
Raw data, including images, started flooding in shortly after midnight. Here’s one of the first look of the newly explored space:
During the dive, Cassini came within about 1,900 miles, or 3,000 kilometers, of Saturn’s cloud tops and within about 200 miles, or 300 kilometers, of the visible edge of the inner rings, according to JPL. The spacecraft then whipped back and away from Saturn, completing its elliptical orbit. The maneuver marked the final stages for Cassini, which is running out of fuel after two decades away from Earth. Cassini will conduct 21 more of these dives, about once each week, getting closer and closer to the planet each time until it burns up in its atmosphere in mid-September. The next dive is scheduled for May 2.