NASA's Cassini spacecraft has just surprised scientists by surviving a plunge into Saturn's rings, and were even more amazed by the images it produced.
NASA has seen a lot of Saturn thanks to the Cassini spacecraft, but they haven’t seen anything like this. As the Cassini spacecraft begins its death dive into Saturn’s atmosphere, it crossed through the huge planet’s famous rings, something that scientists thought might damage it beyond repair, but lo and behold, the spacecraft managed to send back images that NASA just received. You can watch the amazing video from NASA which is embedded at the bottom of this post.
The images from Cassini show a massive dark swirling giant hurricane. The pictures were taken just 1,900 miles from the cloud tops of Saturn, which is less than the distance between Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. The spacecraft is also within 200 miles of the innermost edge of the rings.
Considering that Cassini was speeding along at 77,000 miles per hour and the particles in the rings of Saturn are certainly enough to damage to the spacecraft, scientists were very surprised to see it survive this perilous descent, likely thanks to the huge antenna that acted as a shield.
“The spacecraft made its first dive through the narrow gap between Saturn and its rings on April 26,” NASA said in a statement. “Because that gap is a region no spacecraft has ever explored, Cassini used its dish-shaped high-gain antenna (13 feet or 4 meters across) as a protective shield while passing through the ring plane. No particles larger than smoke particles were expected, but the precautionary measure was taken on the first dive. The Cassini team will use data collected by one of the spacecraft’s science instruments (the Radio and Plasma Wave Subsystem, or RPWS) to ascertain the size and density of ring particles in the gap in advance of future dives. As a result of its antenna-forward orientation, the spacecraft will be out of contact with Earth during the dive.”