Nasa spacecraft dives through Saturn and its rings

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The probe made the first of its 22 scheduled dives yesterday, on April 26.

As a protective measure, the spacecraft used its large, dish-shaped high-gain antenna as a shield, orienting it in the direction of oncoming ring particles. "We won't know for a number of hours until Cassini gets in a position where it can radio back home, and so that's one of those things that keeps us on pins and needles".

By intentionally directing the craft to burn up in Saturn's atmosphere, controllers are hoping to prevent the decommissioned spacecraft from colliding with one of Saturn's moons. "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. Cassini's 22 dives will take place weekly between April and September while it continues its orbit around Saturn before the mission is brought to an end on the 15th September 2017.

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Launched in October 1997, Cassini arrived at Saturn in July 2004 and dropped off a lander built by the European Space Agency that successfully completed a parachute descent to the surface of Titan the following January. The gap between Saturn and its rings is about 1,500 miles wide.

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Director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington, Jim Green commented, "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".

We will be inundated with data, dimensions, detailed maps and gravitational measurements that will fill the gaps that science up until now has not been able to answer, such as the speed to which Saturn rotates.

No spacecraft has ever flown between a planet and its rings.

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