NASA's Cassini spacecraft sailed into uncharted territory Wednesday between the planet Saturn and the rings that encircle it, and emerged Thursday unscathed. The Cassini craft is the first and only spacecraft to ever venture into the gap between Saturn and its rings. It sent back its first signal early Thursday morning, about 20 hours after the crossing took place.
"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," said Cassini project manager Earl Maize of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Scientists lost contact with the ship during the passing because its antenna had to be shifted to protect the scientific equipment from potentially damaging material floating in Saturn's rings.
The rings of Saturn are made up of moving particles of ice and space debris. NASA scientists plan on performing 21 more crossings between now and September. The next scheduled crossing is set for May 2. Cassini has been orbiting Saturn since 2004, but it is running low on fuel, so scientists decided to conduct the ring crossings before the spacecraft becomes inoperable in the near future.