CHICAGO, June 17 (UPI) -- NASA's Cassini spacecraft soon will begin its attempt to unravel the mystery of Saturn's legendary rings -- one tiny particle at a time.
Using a dust detector developed at the University of Chicago, Cassini will pass through a gap in the planet's rings -- known as the Cassini Gap -- and attempt to measure the size and composition of the ring particles.
June 30, Cassini will become the first spacecraft ever to enter Saturn's orbit. The instrument, called the high rate detector, has been recording sporadic dust impacts in interplanetary space during the spacecraft's mission, which began in 1997.
"We have seen some impacts, but only a few, maybe one a month -- that's about all you'd expect," said Anthony Tuzzolino, a senior scientist at the university's Enrico Fermi Institute.
Saturn's rings consist of billions of objects ranging in size from microscopic particles to car-sized boulders locked into orbit around the planet.
"The project chose a virtually void section to pass through the ring system so we didn't get clobbered," Tuzzolino said. "After ring-plane crossing, then we start the measurements of the trapped dust in Saturn's system."