You can always count on NASA to jury-rig its way into a successful mission.
Its Cassini spacecraft just gave Earth another first in space exploration: It passed through the narrow gap between Saturn and its rings on Wednesday, then relayed stunning photographs of the planet’s atmosphere and invaluable data back to Terra.
But you can’t safely navigate an unexplored, potentially hazardous region of space without channeling MacGyver.
The gap between Saturn’s rings and the top of its atmosphere is only 1,500 miles wide, and Cassini was hurtling through at 77,000 miles-per-hour relative to the planet, according to NASA. Models suggested that Saturn’s ring particles still exist in that gap ― they would be small, “on the scale of smoke particles,” but it wouldn’t take much to wreak havoc on sensitive technology that’s zipping along at Cassini’s speed.
So the space agency decided to use its high-gain antenna ― a 13-foot-wide dish that Cassini uses to communicate with Earth ― as a shield, turning it away from our planet as it protected the vessel. That meant that Cassini wouldn’t be able to make contact during a 20-hour window, while flying through uncharted space, using its only form of communication as a plow.
Of course it worked. Bad ass.
“No spacecraft has ever been this close to Saturn before. 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,” said Cassini Project Manager Earl Maize of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “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.”
NASA’s Deep Space Network Goldstone Complex in California started receiving mission data from Cassini just after midnight Thursday morning. Cassini and its little buddy, the Huygens probe, has already gathered a laundry list of critical data from Saturn and its largest moon, Titan, which is “one of the most Earth-like worlds we’ve ever encountered,” NASA reports.
Eventually, NASA plans to dump Cassini in Saturn’s clouds before it collides with one of the planet’s 53 moons. Enceladus and Titan are thought to have a higher chance of supporting microbial life, and a collision with Cassini could pose contamination risks.