Around 5am ET, NASA’s Cassini Spacecraft dove through the gap between Saturn and its rings. The Twitter account used to document the mission sent out a message announcing the descent. “Shields Up!” they tweeted. “As we pass over #Saturn, we’re turning our high-gain antenna into a shield RIGHT NOW to deflect oncoming ring particles.”
Cassini is entering a region no spacecraft has ever explored. Because the antenna normally used to send images will now act as a shield, Cassini will be out of contact with Earth for at least a day.
“No particles larger than smoke particles are expected,” NASA says, “but the precautionary measure is being taken on the first dive.”
The data collected by the spacecraft during the dive will be sent back to the Cassini team, who will use the information to gauge the atmosphere of the ring for future dives.
Two days ago, Cassini captured an image of Saturn’s moon, Titan, on its final flyby. This course of action put the spacecraft into its last act, which NASA is calling Cassini’s Grand Finale. Using Titan’s gravity to bend its path, Cassini will begin a series of 22 dangerous dives between the ring and Saturn, which will end with a plunge into Saturn itself, destroying the spacecraft. The mission will conclude in September, just shy of the 20-year anniversary. Cassini first began its journey in 1997.
If all goes to plan, NASA hopes to regain contact with Cassini no earlier than 3:30am ET. They estimate images will come shortly after.