On April 26, the NASA Cassini space probe completed the first of 22 dives through Saturn’s rings that are planned before the end of its final mission. No other object created by humans had ventured so far into the rings before, so Cassini has provided us with some of the very first looks at the roiling bands of dust and ice particles.
Traveling at speeds of 77,000 mph, Cassini had to shield itself with its dish-shaped antenna as it made its way through thick masses of potentially destructive particles during the dive. This made communication with Earth impossible until it reached the other side.
The Deep Space Network finally picked up Cassini’s signal again just before midnight Pacific time, prompting relief and elation at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s ground control. Next, data began making its way back to Earth — including many more of these fascinating images.
Cassini will make its last dive in September of this year, at which time it will actually land on Saturn and becoming a permanent resident of the planet. Until then, it will continue to give all of us here on Earth a glimpse of what’s out there in the far reaches of our solar system.