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Cassini Deep Dives Through Saturn’s Icy Rings

Update: April 27, 2017. The Cassini spacecraft is back in touch with Earth after its first-ever successful dive through the gap between Saturn and its rings. Raw images and data have begun to be received at NASA's Deep Space Network Goldstone Complex in the Mojave Desert of California. See the latest raw, unprocessed images at NASA/JPL's Cassini Raw Image Gallery, and learn more about the mission at Cassini: The Grand Finale.

April 26, 2017. Early this morning, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft kicked off the final phase of its 13-year journey to Saturn with a dramatic descent between the planet and its rings of ice and rock.  NASA expects the first images from this unprecedented maneuver to be transmitted back to Earth tonight, with images available to the public beginning very early tomorrow morning.


Just this morning at 2am, the Cassini spacecraft began its last 22 orbits of Saturn, as part of its planned demise at the end of its mission life. It’s an unusual orbit around Saturn that brings the spacecraft really close to the cloud tops of Saturn by flying in between the ring system of Saturn and the upper atmosphere of the planet itself.

The spacecraft comes right inside the D Ring of Saturn, loops down and around the planet, back out away from the planet, and then loops back around again, once a week between now and September 15.

During that time, the spacecraft has an opportunity to get really good close up images of Saturn, and also really good data about the atmosphere of Saturn. It will get really close – within 1,800 miles or so of the upper cloud tops of the planet.

These 22 orbits mark the end of Cassini’s journey. On September 15th, the spacecraft will plunge into the atmosphere of Saturn, where it will be destroyed. The reason for this destruction is to avoid contaminating any of the other moons of Saturn with microbes that come from Earth.

The work that the Cassini spacecraft has done over the last 20 years has really helped us understand what gas giant planets are like, what their families of moons are like, and what we might expect to find -- not only in our own solar system, but in other solar systems around the galaxy.

Follow this developing story on Twitter @CassiniSaturn
VR: Cassini’s Grand Finale 360 View 

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If you’re in the Philadelphia area, don’t miss the Philadelphia Science Festival’s Citywide Star Party tomorrow night.
More from NASA: Cassini’s First Grand Finale Dive: Milestones
Gallery: Cassini’s Journey to Saturn

April 26, 2017, 11:22am