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Spacecraft Cassini’s first pass between Saturn and its rings goes flawlessly

Cassini is the first spacecraft to pass between Saturn and its rings. (April 27, 2017) (Sign up for our free video newsletter here http://bit.ly/2n6VKPR)

Great news for Cassini fans: The NASA spacecraft sent word that it successfully completed its first pass through the uncharted territory between Saturn and its rings late Wednesday.

Hopefully the next 21 orbits through this never-before-explored space will be just as successful.

More than 100 members of the Cassini team and their families gathered in the Von Karman Auditorium at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge to await the news.

The first signal, indicating that the spacecraft was alive, came right on time at 11:55 p.m Pacific, to cheers and fist pumps.

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About 10 minutes later, another set of signals confirmed that Cassini was beaming science and engineering data across more than 750 million miles of space from the Saturn system to Earth.

Someone in the audience murmured: “What a good spacecraft, what a very good spacecraft.”

In a statement released early Thursday, the Cassini project manager said he was delighted.

“No spacecraft has ever been this close to Saturn before,” said Earl Maize of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “We could only rely on predictions, based on our experience with Saturn’s other rings, of what we thought this gap between the rings and Saturn would be like.

“I am delighted to report that Cassini shot through the gap just as we planned and has come out the other side in excellent shape.”

A NASA photo shows an unprocessed image of features in Saturn's atmosphere from closer than ever before, captured by NASA's Cassini spacecraft during its first Grand Finale dive past the planet, in space, 26 April 2017 (issued 27 April 2017).

A NASA photo shows an unprocessed image of features in Saturn’s atmosphere from closer than ever before, captured by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft during its first Grand Finale dive past the planet, in space, 26 April 2017 (issued 27 April 2017).

(NASA / JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute )

Cassini has been flying around the Saturn system for 13 years now, but it had never passed between the planet and its rings until now.

Computer models suggested that the area should be relatively free of dust and particles that might damage the spacecraft, but until it actually made its first dive into the region, nobody could know for sure that it would pass through unharmed.

“We have a saying in space flight,” said Erick Sturm, lead mission planner for Cassini. “Whenever we go where we haven’t been before, we’re probably going to be surprised.”

Cassini’s next dive through the gap is scheduled for May 2.

deborah.netburn@latimes.com

Do you love science? I do! Follow me @DeborahNetburn and “like” Los Angeles Times Science & Health on Facebook.

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UPDATES:

2:40 a.m.: Updated with a quote from Maize.

This article was first published at 1:05 a.m.


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