PASADENA, Calif. -- Voyager 1, climaxing a three-year journey from Earth, sped to within 77,200 miles of Saturn Wednesday, stunning scientists by revealing that two of the planets' bizarre rings appeared kinked and 'braided' in defiance of the known laws of nature.
Abandoning professional language, amazed scientists described the twisting formation in terms such as weird, mind-boggling and 'raving mad.'
The spacecraft drew nearest to Saturn at 3:46 p.m. PST, giving scientists their closest look ever at the second largest planet in the solar system, a giant ball of mustard colored gas circled by scores of spectacular rings.
After scanning the planet's cloud deck and gathering other data with a battery of scientific instruments, the spacecraft was programmed to look at more of the planet's frozen moons and head on a course eventually taking it out of the solar system.
Voyager 1 was 947 million miles from Earth when it observed the ring phenomena.
'In the strange world of Saturn's rings, the bizarre has become commonplace,' said Dr. Bradford Smith, head of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Voyager photographic team.
'It boggles the mind that this can even exist. There appear to be kinks in the braids, which makes it even more difficult to understand.'
Voyager 1 first explored Jupiter 20 months ago, sending back thousands of spectacular photos of that giant gas sphere and its biggest moons, including Io, the moon racked by active volcanos.
As it began its approach to Saturn, photos from the nuclear-powered spacecraft revealed two new moons around the planet. A third was found later, bringing to 15 the number of known satellites orbiting the planet.
A twin spacecraft is due to reach Saturn next August and then cruise on to explore Uranus in 1986 for the first time and possibly go on to scout distant Neptune in 1989.
The puzzling ring discovery came as Voyager 1 was racing toward its closest approach to Saturn.
The bizarre braiding in the icy debris rings, which whirl around Saturn to form one of the most strikingfeatures in the solar system, was discovered within the planet's 'F' ring, which was not even known to exist until it was discovered by the Pioneer 11 space probe last year.
That appeared to rule out the possibility Voyager 1 was seeing some transitory flux, Smith said.
'If it's been around one year, it's been around billions of years, which means this weird configuration is stable.'
Smith conceded that such braiding should be impossible under Newton's laws of mechanics, a foundation stone of scientific understanding that should require that gravity flatten out the kinks and spirals by acting equally on all parts of them.
'It defies the laws of pure orbiting mechanics,' Smith says, but 'obviously they (the rings) are doing the right thing and we just don't understand the laws involved.'
Voyager's scientists, watching with awe as Voyager's radioed reports reached Earth 1 hour and 25 minutes after they left the probe, were clearly amazed at the ring discovery and could only speculate that the rings are reacting to gravitational pulls now unknown to them.
'This is not just eccentric, this is raving mad,' said geologist Torrence Johnson. 'How can such a complicated structure remain stable? Some very complicated processes must be going on.'
The most intense science-gathering part of the mission began Tuesday when the spacecraft skimmed within 2,500 miles of the giant moon Titan. The moon's frozen haze kept Voyager's twin television cameras from getting a view of the surface.
Titan and its methane-rich atmosphere has long fascinated scientists. There has been speculation in the past that the moon might even harbor some form of life, but scientists now believe it is too cold there.
Voyager 1 dipped under the Saturnian rings late Tuesday night and accelerated under the increasing pull of Saturn's gravity to a peak of 56,599 mph.
It was to spend 18 hours within the rings before sailing on to become the third man-made object to leave the solar system, after two little Pioneer spacecraft.
The rings of Saturn, first seen by Galileo in 1610, have exceeded scientists' expectations as a source of wonder, recalling a prediction by Smith last week, before the discoveries, that 'much of what we thought we understood quite well will prove to be wrong.'
The rings are thought to be rock and ice, what one scientist called 'dirty snowballs.'
What had been thought to be five rings, labeled A through F, have turned out to be scores of rings with varying degreees of separation. Scientists have stopped trying to estimate how many there are, but there appear to be hundreds.
'I counted 20 rings in the Cassini division this morning,' Smith said before the Saturn encounter, 'and we still don't have a high-resolution picture. I said the other day there maybe 100, and I expect this to be rise _ maybe by 5 (to 500).'
Scientists were surprised to learn Monday and Tuesday that some of the rings are eccentric _ of varying width and moving toward and away from their neighbors instead of following a perfectly circular path.
'it is the unthinkable, the unimaginable that we're looking for,' commented Laurence Soderblom of the U.S. Geological Survey.
Braided rings were 'somewhere above the top of the list' of the things he never expected to see, responded Smith.
Soderblom displayed a photo of an enormous crater on Saturn's moon Mimas, believed to be made of ice. The crater, which has a peak in its center, is 80 miles wide, more than one-quarter the diameter of the moon.