The Cassini spacecraft has recently managed to manoeuvre itself between Saturn’s upper atmosphere and its rings. In case you are thinking duh! It’s a planet we are talking about, Cassini was traveling at speeds in excess of 77,000 mph when it performed the feat.
Not only is the first ever ring crossing, but this is also the closest that a spacecraft has ever managed where the ringed planet is concerned.
The thing with moving at such terrific speeds is that even if the spacecraft had collided with particles from Saturn’s rings — it would have resulted in permanent and disabling injury. Which was why it was important to ensure that such an event did not occur. As a precautionary measure and in a bid to avoid the said particles, earth controls had oriented the satellite’s dish-shaped antenna in the direction of the oncoming ring particle.
While this did afford some protection to Cassini, the spacecraft was out of touch with earth and had to make the crossing on its own.
Speaking on the topic, Cassini project manager Earl Maize of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said:
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. 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.
During the course of its journey, Cassini came within 1,900 miles of Saturn’s cloud tops and 200 miles of the innermost visible edge of the rings. This also means that NASA now has the kind of data that wasn’t available until now. What’s more, it probably knows more about how shielding works and how future spacecrafts should be equipped.
Scientists also hope to have more data regarding Saturn’s atmosphere and its interior structure. What’s more, measurements regarding Saturn’s gravity and magnetic fields can also be undertaken.
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