Yesterday, NASA's Cassini spacecraft made the first of 22 scheduled dives through the narrow gap between the planet Saturn and its rings. According to a report published today by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the daring orbit came within 1,900 miles of the planet's cloud tops, placing the Cassini closer to Saturn than any other human-made object. The above image is one of the first pictures taken from the Cassini as it descended towards the planet during the first dive. The unprocessed images capture what New Scientist believes "are probably shadows from the planet's rings being cast onto its surface."
The Cassini is now relaying science and engineering data back to earth via NASA's Deep Space Network Goldstone Complex located in the Mojave desert. In addition to the photographs, the spacecraft will make detailed maps of Saturn's gravity and magnetic fields, improve our understanding of how much material is in the rings, and sample icy ring particles being funneled into the atmosphere by the planet's magnetic field. NASA says that the information gathered by the Cassini mission will help them understand the way giant planets and planetary systems form and evolve over time.
The Cassini has been in space for 20 years. The mission launched in October of 1997 and has been orbiting Saturn since 2004. This initial dive marks the start of what mission planners are calling the mission's "Grand Finale." Between April and September of this year, the spacecraft will make a series of scheduled dives between the rings and the planet until it eventually plunged into Saturn's on September 15th, 2017. Cassini's next dive through the gap is scheduled for May 2.
Check out some other images taken from the Cassini's mission around Saturn below:
For more information about the "Grand Finale" mission, head over to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's website.