CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — NASA’s Cassini spacecraft ventured Wednesday into the never-before-explored region between Saturn and its rings.
But flight controllers won’t know how everything went until Thursday when they are back in touch with the craft.
Cassini was out of radio contact with Earth as it became the first spacecraft to enter the gap between Saturn and its rings. That’s because its big dish antenna was maneuvered face forward to protect science instruments from potentially damaging particles in the rings. The antenna could sustain minor damage like a small hole and still function properly, according to officials.
If Cassini survives this first round, it will make 21 more crossings before its demise in September. The gap between Saturn’s atmosphere and its rings is relatively narrow: 1,200 miles, or 1,900 kilometers.
“We’re all crossing our fingers saying, ‘Oh, geez, I hope we hear from it’ — and we will,” added guidance and control engineer Joan Stupik.
Launched in 1997, Cassini has been orbiting Saturn since 2004. Because the fuel tank is practically empty, NASA decided on one last dangerous, but science-rich adventure.
— 5 p.m. PDT (8 p.m. EDT) on April 25: Cassini is approaching Saturn over the planet’s northern hemisphere in advance of its first of 22 planned dives through the gap between the planet and its rings.
— 1:34 a.m. PDT (4:34 a.m. EDT) on April 26: As it passes from north to south over Saturn, Cassini begins a 14-minute turn to point its high-gain antenna into the direction of oncoming ring particles. In this orientation, the antenna acts as a protective shield for Cassini’s instruments and engineering systems.
— 2 a.m. PDT (5 a.m. EDT) on April 26: Cassini crosses the ring plane during its dive between the rings and Saturn. The spacecraft’s science instruments are collecting data, but Cassini is not in contact with Earth at this time.
— No earlier than around midnight PDT on April 26 (3 a.m. EDT on April 27): Earth has its first opportunity to regain contact with Cassini as the giant, 230-foot (70-meter) Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, California, listens for the spacecraft’s radio signal.
— Likely no earlier than 12:30 a.m. PDT (3:30 a.m. EDT) on April 27: Images are scheduled to become available from the spacecraft.