Cassini spacecraft sends back closest-ever photos of Saturn

NASA caption: An ethereal, glowing spot appears on Saturn’s B ring in this view from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. There is nothing particular about that place in the rings that produces the glowing effect — instead, it is an example of an “opposition surge” making that area on the rings appear extra bright. An opposition surge occurs when the sun is directly behind the observer looking toward the rings. The particular geometry of this observation makes the point in the rings appear much, much brighter than would otherwise be expected. This view looks toward the sunlit side of the rings from about 28 degrees above the ring plane. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini wide-angle camera on June 26, 2016.

By Jake Ellison (

April 28, 2017

The Cassini spacecraft, on a historic and eventually fatal orbit that dives between Saturn’s body and its rings, has re-emerged from its first dive and fired back some closest-ever photos of the planet’s atmosphere.

NASA lost contact with the spacecraft yesterday during the dive, but reacquired contact just before midnight last night with its Deep Space Network Goldstone Complex in California’s Mojave Desert.

NASA said in a news release:

“In the grandest tradition of exploration, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has once again blazed a trail, showing us new wonders and demonstrating where our curiosity can take us if we dare,” said Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

As it dove through the gap, Cassini came within about 1,900 miles (3,000 kilometers) of Saturn’s cloud tops (where the air pressure is 1 bar — comparable to the atmospheric pressure of Earth at sea level) and within about 200 miles (300 kilometers) of the innermost visible edge of the rings.

The agency explains that the gab between the rings and Saturn’s atmosphere is about 1,500 miles … a narrow window for a spacecraft being guided from so far away.

NASA’s Cassini probe is preparing to end it’s twenty-year stellar mission. Launched back in 1997, the spacecraft has been orbiting the gas giant Saturn since 2004. For the last thirteen years, Cassini has been sending back a trove of data around the planet and its rings. Now that the mission is coming to an end, NASA engineers want to sacrifice the craft for some unprecedented views of Saturn. In particular, NASA will maneuver the craft to dive through a gap in the rings, before plummeting Cassini into Saturn, or one of it’s 60 moons.

Media: WochIt Media

“No spacecraft has ever been this close to Saturn before. We could only rely on predictions, based on our experience with Saturn’s other rings, of what we thought this gap between the rings and Saturn would be like,” said Cassini Project Manager Earl Maize of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “I am delighted to report that Cassini shot through the gap just as we planned and has come out the other side in excellent shape.”

Cassini will make its next dare-devil dive through the gap on May 2.

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