Traveling at a speed of 77,000 mph, NASA's Cassini spacecraft made its first dive inside Saturn's rings, transmitting back to Earth on Thursday the closest-ever images of the planet.
Cassini has been exploring Saturn for 13 years, and on Wednesday, it became the first spacecraft to enter the gap between Saturn and its innermost ring. "Cassini spacecraft has once again blazed a trail, showing us new wonders and demonstrating where our curiosity can take us if we dare," NASA planetary sciences chief Jim Green said in a statement. The pictures it sent back showed a hurricane, clouds, and a six-sided vortex weather system, Reuters reports.
Having been in space since 2004, Cassini is running low on fuel, and is expected to make 22 trips in the territory between Saturn's cloud tops and rings before it destroys itself on Sept. 15 by flying directly into Saturn's atmosphere (NASA is doing this so Cassini doesn't accidentally hit a moon that could support microbial life). Scientists are hoping Cassini will survive all of these dives, and that the information it collects on Saturn's inner moons, winds, clouds, and auroras can explain the source of Saturn's magnetic field and how fast the planet rotates. Catherine Garcia