Cassini’s final months are stuffed with daring science, the kind of operations you’d never venture early in a mission of this magnitude for fear you’d lose the spacecraft. With the end in sight for Cassini, though, ramping up the science return seems worth the risk. And while diving through the narrow gap between Saturn and its rings seems to be asking for trouble, the results of the first plunge on April 26 show that the region is more dust-free than expected.
“The region between the rings and Saturn is ‘the big empty,’ apparently,” says Cassini Project Manager Earl Maize of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “Cassini will stay the course, while the scientists work on the mystery of why the dust level is much lower than expected.”
Image: This artist’s concept shows an over-the-shoulder view of Cassini making one of its Grand Finale dives over Saturn. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.
The region between Saturn and its rings was thought, based on previous models of the ring particle environment, to be free of large particles that could cripple the spacecraft. But it seemed prudent to rotate Cassini so its 4-meter antenna became a ‘bumper’ of sorts that could shield its scientific ...