It’s been two decades since NASA launched the Cassini spacecraft to explore the far reaches of our Solar System — more specifically, the mysterious gas giant Saturn as its final destination.
Having traveled billions of miles over the years, Cassini has finally reached the tops of Saturn’s clouds. The intrepid machinery has made its way into a relatively small 1,500-mile gap between Saturn and its innermost ring. With that, the spacecraft is now at its closest ever distance from the planet.
At 11:56 p.m. PDT on April 26, NASA’s Deep Space Network Goldstone Complex in California Mojave Desert captured the signal sent by Cassini after surviving the descent. Interestingly, in these crucial-most moments for the mission’s success, the spacecraft was speeding up to 77,000 miles an hour relative to Saturn. At that whopping speed, even an errant particle would more than suffice to cause a terrible crash.
However, any such unwarranted situation was skillfully avoided by the spacecraft owing to its superior engineering, along with a touch of luck.
“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,” said Cassini Project Manager Earl Maize in a statement.
Earlier, NASA engineers had diverted Cassini’s course to send it off to the rings of Saturn where the spacecraft undertook a series of choreographed orbits around Titan, one of Saturn’s many moons.
Unfortunately, Cassini doesn’t have much time left. Its days are numbered as the spacecraft is running out of fuel. However, that doesn’t mean it has run out of the fire. Starting now till its final crash into Saturn, the spacecraft will be collecting valuable info about the gas giant’s magnetic and gravitational fields, as well as the composition of its upper atmosphere, the depth of its metallic hydrogen core, the age and weight of its rings, and much more.
Stay tuned to see some more spectacular images of the second-largest planet in our Solar System in the coming days.