" 'No spacecraft has ever been this close to Saturn before".
During the flight through the gap between Saturn and its rings, Cassini came within 3,000 kilometers (1,865 miles) of the uppermost clouds of the Saturn atmosphere.
NASA's Cassini spacecraft dove inside the rings for the first time at about 77,000 miles per hour relative to the planet, kicking off what the science team is calling the Grand Finale of the mission.
Cassini was out of radio contact with Earth as it became the first spacecraft to enter the gap between Saturn and its rings.
"We are just ecstatic", project science engineer Jo Pitesky said by phone from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. This image taken by the spacecraft shows Saturn's rotating storm clouds over the planet's north pole. Using the moon's gravity pull as a slingshot, Cassini will be attempting to use the change in velocity to plunge herself into the gap between Saturn and its 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.
It zipped through the region at about 124,000 km/h, meaning that if small particles floating near the rings had hit a sensitive area of the spacecraft, it could potentially have been disabled.
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So the space agency chose to use its high-gain antenna ― a 13-foot-wide dish that Cassini uses to communicate with Earth ― as a shield, turning it away from our planet as it protected the vessel.
You can hardly tell it's there, but the arrow in this wide angle shot taken by Cassini marks our Earth - a tiny dot because the picture was taken from very, very far away. They're using the close encounters with Saturn and its rings to take what they describe as "unprecedented measurements" of its atmospheric composition and interior structure.
The spacecraft radioed home around 0700 GMT (3 a.m. EDT) Thursday, around 22 hours after zipping between Saturn's D ring and the planet's cloud tops at a relative speed of about 77,000 mph (124 kilometers per hour), fast enough to travel from NY to Los Angeles in less than two minutes.
NASA's Cassini spacecraft moving between Saturn and its rings.
In February, scientists observing the TRAPPIST-1 star system with NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope announced the discovery of seven probably rocky Earth-sized planets, three of which might be able to support life. Because of the high risk, the risky dives could only occur at the end of Cassini's lifespan.
Following its last close flyby of the large moon Titan on April 21, Cassini began what mission planners are calling its "Grand Finale". The spacecraft will make similar manoeuvres during its subsequent dives, the next of which is scheduled for Tuesday.
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.