While you were sleeping this morning, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft dove between Saturn and its rings — getting closer to the planet than it’s ever been before. The little space probe has been exploring the Saturn system for the last 13 years, but now it’s entering its final orbital path around the planet, what’s being called the Grand Finale. This morning’s ring pass is just the first of 22 dives that Cassini will do while on this orbit, before plunging into Saturn and burning up in mid-September.
The pass occurred at around 5AM ET this morning, but it’ll be a while before we know if the trip was successful. During the plunge, Cassini was gathering as much data as possible, as well as using its antenna as a shield to protect the vehicle against any potentially dangerous particles. The spacecraft won’t send word that it’s okay until later today, and NASA won’t get that message until 3AM ET tomorrow, April 27th.
But while we wait, you can enjoy today’s Google Doodle which depicts the spacecraft’s first trip between Saturn and its rings this morning. Saturn gives Cassini a big grin as the vehicle passes by snapping pictures. Hopefully this morning’s pass happened as smoothly as shown in this doodle, smiling planet and all.