For the first time ever, our Cassini spacecraft dove through the narrow gap between Saturn and its rings on April 26. At 5 a.m. EDT, Cassini crossed the ring plane with its science instruments turned on and collecting data.
During this dive, the spacecraft was not in contact with Earth. The first opportunity to regain contact with the spacecraft is expected around 3 a.m. EDT on April 27.
This area between Saturn and its rings has never been explored by a spacecraft before. What we learn from these daring final orbits will further our understanding of how giant planets, and planetary systems everywhere, form and evolve.
So, you might be asking…how did this spacecraft maneuver its orbit between Saturn and its rings? Well…let us explain!
On April 22, Cassini made its 127th and final close approach to Saturn’s moon Titan. The flyby put the spacecraft on course for its dramatic last act, known as the Grand Finale.
As the spacecraft passed over Titan, the moon’s gravity bent its path, reshaping the robotic probe’s orbit slightly so that instead of passing just outside Saturn’s main rings, Cassini would begin a series of 22 dives between the rings and the planet.
With this assist, Cassini received a large increase in velocity of approximately 1,925 mph with respect to Saturn.
This final chapter of exploration and discovery is in many ways like a brand-new mission. Twenty-two times, the Cassini spacecraft will dive through the unexplored space between Saturn and its rings. What we learn from these ultra-close passes over the planet could be some of the most exciting revelations ever returned by the long-lived spacecraft.
Throughout these daring maneuvers, updates will be posted on social media at:
Astral - Old tales tell of six gods who have stood watch over Eos since antiquity. It is said they now slumber, conserving their strength, waiting to awaken upon the coming of a plague known as the Starscourge. —The Six and the Oracle - I
Our solar system is a jewel box filled with a glittering variety of beautiful worlds–and not all of them are planets. This week, we present our solar system’s most marvelous moons.
1. Weird Weather: Titan
Saturn’s hazy moon Titan is larger than Mercury, but its size is not the only way it’s like a planet. Titan has a thick atmosphere, complete with its own “water cycle” – except that it’s way too cold on Titan for liquid water. Instead, rains of liquid hydrocarbons like ethane and methane fall onto icy mountains, run into rivers, and gather into great seas. Our Cassini spacecraft mapped the methane seas with radar, and its cameras even caught a glimpse of sunlight reflecting off the seas’ surface. Learn more about Titan: saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/science/titan/
2. Icy Giant: Ganymede
Jupiter’s moon Ganymede is the largest in the solar system. It’s bigger than Mercury and Pluto, and three-quarters the size of Mars. It’s also the only moon known to have its own magnetic field. Details: solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/ganymede/indepth
3. Retrograde Rebel: Triton
Triton is Neptune’s largest moon, and the only one in the solar system to orbit in the opposite direction of its planet’s rotation, a retrograde orbit. It may have been captured from the Kuiper Belt, where Pluto orbits. Despite the frigid temperatures there, Triton has cryovolcanic activity – frozen nitrogen sometimes sublimates directly to gas and erupts from geysers on the surface. More on Triton: solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/triton/indepth
4. Cold Faithful: Enceladus
The most famous geysers in our solar system (outside of those on Earth) belong to Saturn’s moon Enceladus. It’s a small, icy body, but Cassini revealed this world to be one of the solar system’s most scientifically interesting destinations. Geyser-like jets spew water vapor and ice particles from an underground ocean beneath the icy crust of Enceladus. With its global ocean, unique chemistry and internal heat, Enceladus has become a promising lead in our search for worlds where life could exist. Get the details: saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/science/enceladus/
5. Volcano World: Io
Jupiter’s moon Io is subjected to tremendous gravitational forces that cause its surface to bulge up and down by as much as 330 feet (100 m). The result? Io is the most volcanically active body in the Solar System, with hundreds of volcanoes, some erupting lava fountains dozens of miles high. More on Io’s volcanoes: solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/io/indepth
6. Yin and Yang Moon: Iapetus
When Giovanni Cassini discovered Iapetus in 1671, he observed that one side of this moon of Saturn was bright and the other dark. He noted that he could only see Iapetus on the west side of Saturn, and correctly concluded that Iapetus had one side much darker than the other side. Why? Three centuries later, the Cassini spacecraft solved the puzzle. Dark, reddish dust in Iapetus’s orbital path is swept up and lands on the leading face of the moon. The dark areas absorb energy and become warmer, while uncontaminated areas remain cooler. Learn more: saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/news/2892/cassini-10-years-at-saturn-top-10-discoveries/#nine
7. A Double World: Charon and Pluto
At half the size of Pluto, Charon is the largest of Pluto’s moons and the largest known satellite relative to its parent body. The moon is so big compared to Pluto that Pluto and Charon are sometimes referred to as a double planet system. Charon’s orbit around Pluto takes 6.4 Earth days, and one Pluto rotation (a Pluto day) takes 6.4 Earth days. So from Pluto’s point of view Charon neither rises nor sets, but hovers over the same spot on Pluto’s surface, and the same side of Charon always faces Pluto. Get the details: www.nasa.gov/feature/pluto-and-charon-new-horizons-dynamic-duo
8. “Death Star” Moon: Mimas
Saturn’s moon Mimas has one feature that draws more attention than any other: the crater Herschel, which formed in an impact that nearly shattered the little world. Herschel gives Mimas a distinctive look that prompts an oft-repeated joke. But, yes, it’s a moon. More: olarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/mimas
9. Don’t Be Afraid, It’s Just Phobos
In mythology, Mars is a the god of war, so it’s fitting that its two small moons are called Phobos, “fear,” and Deimos, “terror.” Our Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter caught this look at Phobos, which is roughly 17 miles (27 km) wide. In recent years, NASA scientists have come to think that Phobos will be torn apart by its host planet’s gravity. Details: www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/phobos-is-falling-apart
Although decades have passed since astronauts last set foot on its surface, Earth’s moon is far from abandoned. Several robotic missions have continued the exploration. For example, this stunning view of the moon’s famous Tycho crater was captured by our Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which continues to map the surface in fine detail today. More: www.lroc.asu.edu/posts/902
Discover more lists of 10 things to know about our solar system HERE.
When Galileo Galilei was observing Saturn in the 1600s, he noticed strange objects on each side of the planet. He drew in his notes a triple-bodied planet system with ears. These “ears” were later discovered to be the rings of Saturn.
2. Solar System Status
Saturn orbits our sun and is the sixth planet from the sun at an average distance of about 886 million miles or 9.5 AU.
3. Short Days
Time flies when you’re on Saturn. One day on Saturn takes just 10.7 hours (the time it takes for Saturn to rotate or spin once). The planet makes a complete orbit around the sun (a year in Saturnian time) in 29 Earth years, or 10,756 Earth days. saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/news/2955/measuring-a-day
4. No Shoes Necessary
That’s because you can’t stand on Saturn—it’s a gas-giant planet and doesn’t have a solid surface. But you might want a jacket. The planet’s temperatures can dip to -220 degrees F.
5. Few visitors
Only a handful of missions have made their way to Saturn: Pioneer 11, Voyager 1 and 2, and Cassini-Huygens, which is there now. Since 2004, Cassini has been exploring Saturn and its moons and rings—but will complete its journey on Sept. 15, 2017.
Saturn’s spectacular ring system is made up of seven rings with several gaps and divisions between them. From now until September, the Cassini spacecraft is performing a set of daring dives every week between the planet and the rings. No other mission has ever explored this unique region before, and what we learn from these final orbits will help us understand of how giant planets—and planetary systems everywhere—form and evolve.
8. Many, Many Moons
Saturn has a total of 62 moons: 53 known moons, with an additional nine moons awaiting confirmation.
Saturn can’t support life as we know it, but some of its moons have conditions that might support life. Ocean worlds could be the answer to life in space and two of Saturn’s moons—Titan and Enceladus—are on that list.
Want to learn more? Read our full list of the 10 things to know this week about the solar system HERE.