NASA's Cassini orbiter successfully completes first ring grazing maneuver around Saturn

Cassini has made its first close dive across the plane of the rings of Saturn, passing just 91,000 kilometers above the methane clouds of the gas giant.

The Cassini orbiter has made its first close dive across the plane of the rings of Saturn, passing just 91,000 kilometers above the methane clouds of the gas giant. The craft passed through a faint ring formed by two tiny moons of Saturn, Janus and Epimetheus. The engine cover was closed for the passage, to protect the engine of the spacecraft. Cassini studied the rings in great detail with its radio equipment, with a focus on observing the structure of the rings.

The Cassini orbiter is a collaborative effort by NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Italian Space Agency. Diving between the planet and the rings are among the final mission objectives of the spacecraft. Cassini had captured videos of moving methane clouds on Saturn and had found deep canyons on Saturn's biggest moon, Titan. The gravity from Titan was used to nudge Cassini into its current ring grazing orbits.

Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, said "It's taken years of planning, but now that we're finally here, the whole Cassini team is excited to begin studying the data that come from these ring-grazing orbits. This is a remarkable time in what's already been a thrilling journey."

NASAs Cassini orbiter successfully completes first ring grazing maneuver around Saturn

The Ring Grazing orbits of Cassini. Image: NASA.

Cameras on board did not image Saturn during the closest approach, as the focus of the mission was maneuvering the craft with the engine, and taking observations with the other instruments on board. Future ring grazing orbits, however, will focus on imaging the rings of Saturn in unprecedented detail, and capturing photos of the small moons near the orbit of the spacecraft. Each of the orbits will last for a week, till the end of the mission.

After twenty years of operations, Cassini is running low on fuel. NASA plans to deorbit the spacecraft with a plunge into Saturn, to prevent contamination on potentially habitable environments on the many moons of Saturn. On 15 September 2017, Cassini will make its final plunge into Saturn, transmitting back data on the composition of the atmosphere for as long as it can.

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