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Cassini makes first dive through Saturn's rings

By Brooks Hays
Cassini makes first dive through Saturn's rings
Cassini executed its inaugural dive through Saturn's rings on Wednesday, April 26, 2017. Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech

April 26 (UPI) -- Cassini is diving for rings -- or, at least, through rings.

On Wednesday, the space probe began its first dive through a 1,500-mile-wide gap separating Saturn and its rings.

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During Cassini's "grand finale" phase, the probe will execute 22 dives. Along the way, the craft will record scientific data and collect samples from Saturn's rings and upper atmosphere. The observation will help scientists better understand how the gas giant and its rings formed and evolved.

Cassini is currently out of contact with its handlers at NASA. The probe is expected to reemerge and reconnect at approximately 3:00 a.m. EDT on Thursday. The Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, California, will await the probe's signal.

The probe will execute dive number two early next week. On September 15, at the end of the grand finale phase -- the grand finale's grand finale -- Cassini will make one final dive into Saturn's atmosphere.

The Cassini mission has twice been extended, but the probe is now low on fuel. Its suicide-like end will ensure NASA won't lose control of the craft and prevent a collision with one of Saturn's many moons. Even NASA wanted to prolong Cassini's scientific life, it couldn't -- it's too late.

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"With this flyby we're committed to the grand finale," said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at JPL. "The spacecraft is now on a ballistic path, so that even if we were to forgo future small course adjustments using thrusters, we would still enter Saturn's atmosphere on Sept. 15 no matter what."

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