NASA's Cassini spacecraft re-established contact with ground controllers shortly before 3 a.m. ET after passing through the gap between Saturn and the planet's rings. NASA says the probe is now beaming back data gathered during the 'dive.'
Cassini was out of contact as it began its journey into the gap because the spacecraft's dish antenna was used as a shield to protect it from possible damage from ring particles. The antenna had been oriented away from Earth. Cassini was out of contact for about 22 hours.
In a NASA statement, the project manager said all had gone as hoped:
" '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.' "
The Two-Way's Bill Chappell reported as the spacecraft began its dive:
The move is the first in what NASA is calling Cassini's Grand Finale, as it weaves its way between Saturn and its rings in a series of 22 dives that will culminate in what the agency describes as "a science-rich plunge into Saturn's atmosphere on Sept. 15."
Cassini was launched in 1997; its mission is slated to end one month before the 20-year mark.
NASA said Cassini came within about 1,900 miles of Saturn's cloud tops and about 200 miles from the innermost edge of Saturn's rings. Project scientists believe ring particles in the gap are no bigger than smoke particles and were confident they would not pose a threat to the spacecraft.