Cassini reconnects after first dive through Saturn's rings

In the wee hours of the morning, Cassini whizzed through the space at 77,000 mph (124,000 kph), collecting all sorts of data on this unchartered territory.

NASA officials are not certain Cassini will survive all its ring dives.

Cassini was programmed to collect science data while close to the planet and turn toward Earth to make contact about 20 hours after the crossing. But the craft has, this week, sent back a attractive new picture of the Earth, glimpsed through Saturn's rings. The trajectory took Cassini around 200 miles (300 kilometers) from the visible edge of Saturn's innermost D ring, and pictures showed no sign of any icy ring particles in the craft's path. "Based on our models we expect this gap to be free of particles that would be big enough to do damage to our spacecraft", NASA project manager Earl Maize said.

"No spacecraft has ever flown through this unique region", NASA administrator Thomas Zurbuchen said.

Cassini's particle detectors will sample icy ring particles being funneled into the atmosphere by Saturn's magnetic field.

In February, scientists observing the TRAPPIST-1 star system with NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope announced the discovery of seven probably rocky Earth-sized planets, three of which might be able to support life. It may be nearing its end, but the Cassini spacecraft isn't done yet.

Other scientific objectives planned around Wednesday's flyby included creating a high-resolution near-infrared movie of Saturn's north pole, giving scientists their best view of the motion of a mysterious six-sided cloud pattern first observed by NASA's Voyager probes in the early 1980s. The images actually show clouds in Saturn's northern hemisphere.

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Cassini's next dive is scheduled to occur on May 2, and thereafter on a weekly basis.

For the past 12 years NASA's Cassini has been exploring Saturn and searching for signs of life on Saturn's moons.

On April 26 2017 she will enter into the final stage of her mission, diving between Saturn and it's rings, a manoeuvre that has never before been attempted.

This final journey will end September 15 when the spacecraft burns up in Saturn's crushing atmosphere. The exact placement of Cassini's journey through the ring gap changes with each orbit.

The 6.7-metre spacecraft launched in 1997, back when Bill Clinton was president, and began orbiting Saturn in 2004.

As we reported yesterday, Cassini has now begun what NASA calls its Grand Finale, as it weaves its way between Saturn and its rings in a series of 22 dives that will culminate in what the agency describes as "a science-rich plunge into Saturn's atmosphere on September 15". NASA's Cassini will draw its last breath as it eventually breaks up and melts completely and becomes part of Saturn.

Images captured by Cassini spacecraft during its first "Grand Finale" dive past the planet have also been published. "We could put it into a very long orbit far from Saturn but the science return from that would be nowhere near as good as what we're about to do".

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