NASA started publishing the first photos taken by the Cassini space probe after its descent into the gap between the planet Saturn and its rings. These are the closest photos taken during a risky maneuver for Cassini, performed only because within a few months it will end its mission so it was decided that it’s worth taking risks to collect close-range data.
The Cassini Space Probe has been exploring the Saturn system since 2004 and over the years has collected a wealth of data on the planet, its rings, and its moons. All this has been achieved by carefully and accurately scheduling the maneuvers needed to bring it close to its targets trying to minimize the use of fuel but also the risks because even collision with small particles could damage it.
The careful programming allowed the Cassini mission, to be precise Cassini-Huygens as originally the probe carried the Huygens lander, to get extraordinary results. This collaboration between NASA, ESA and the Italian Space Agency has brought a remarkable set of discoveries regarding the Saturn system but its fuel is now low so the time came to start the final phase of the mission, called the Grand Finale, which will end on September 15 2017.
In this Grand Finale, the Cassini space probe started diving once a week into Saturn’s rings for a total that eventually will be of 22 times. The maneuvers are bringing it closer and closer to the planet but this means increasing the risks and it’s been decided to take the possible precautions to protect it.
Cassini’s 4-meter (13-foot) dish-shaped high-gain antenna was used as a shield on April 26 when it dropped into the gap between Saturn and its rings with the consequence that it could no longer communicate with the Earth. When in the USA it was the night between April 26 and 27, it reestablished its contacts after reorientating its antenna, a sign of the maneuver’s success.
The space between Saturn and its rings is about 2,000 kilometers (1,500 miles) wide and the Cassini space probe went about 300 kilometers (200 miles) from the rings’ edge at a speed of about 124,000 kph (77,000 mph). During that passage, it collected data with its instruments and took the closest photos of Saturn ever obtained. After resuming its contacts with the Earth, it started transmitting all of this and now these photos are being published.
For now, the published photos haven’t been processed so it’s difficult to really understand what’s in the parts of Saturn’s atmosphere they’re showing. For the scientists involved, they’re a new treasure that could contain valuable information on the composition, structures, and dynamics of the planet’s atmosphere.
The Cassini mission could surprise us until the end thanks to the photos that will be taken and the other data that will be collected until practically the last minute. The next dive in the gap between Saturn and its rings is scheduled for May 2, and if everything goes well they’ll go on every week.
The Cassini mission has become over the years one of the most extraordinary in the history of the solar system’s exploration. It’s the farthest spacecraft in orbit around a planet and demonstrated the value of this type of mission, which can study for years a single planet, its moons, and in the case of Saturn its rings.