NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has just successfully completed its tenth ring crossing at Saturn, on June 23, which brings it almost halfway through the Grand Finale – the last phase of the mission, which will end on Sept. 15, 2017. This leaves twelve more ring crosses to go before the end of the mission. There may not be a lot of time left for Cassini, but these last close flybys of Saturn are providing views and data never before possible – a crowning achievement for a mission which has already completely changed our understanding of the giant ringed planet and its moons.
During each ring crossing, the spacecraft “dives” through Saturn’s rings, or more specifically, the gap between the innermost rings and the planet itself. This is something which has never been done before, an incredible accomplishment so far for Cassini. Unfortunately it also signals the upcoming end of the long mission; there are now only twelve more such ring crossings to go before Cassini takes the ultimate swan dive into Saturn itself.
Of course, Cassini has sent back many images taken during the ring crossings, and they are spectacular. From this vantage point and close proximity to the rings, incredible detail can be seen in the structure of the rings, looking like the very fine etchings/grooves in a vinyl record. You can almost see individual ring particles, larger ones like big boulders, but most are still much too small to be resolved, being the size of sand grains or dust.
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