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Spacecraft enters Saturn's orbit



This diagram provided by NASA on Wednesday shows the plan for the international Cassini spacecraft threading a gap between two of Saturn's dazzling rings and entering an orbit around the giant planet, completing one of the mission's most critical manoeuvres more than 1440 million km from Earth. — AP

PASADENA (CALIFORNIA), JULY 1. Just hours after swooping into orbit around Saturn, the Cassini spacecraft sent ``absolutely mind-blowing'' images of the giant planet's rings back to Earth early on Thursday.

The first shadowy close-ups were taken from the U.S.-European craft as it looked down on ring segments while entering orbit late on Wednesday. As more and more pictures came in on Thursday, the images from the dark side of the rings gradually gave way to increasingly clear pictures.

Mission scientists and engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory had watched tensely late on Wednesday as a signal indicated first that Cassini — launched nearly seven years ago — had safely passed through the ring plane and then performed a crucial engine firing. It squeezed through a gap in Saturn's shimmering rings, fired its brakes and settled into a near-perfect orbit around the giant planet.

Mission officials huddled before a control room screen as the raw images came in on Thursday from more than 1.4 billion km away. Some ring segments appeared as a bland haze. Others resembled ripples in water or crisp bands of light and dark.

Putting the first spacecraft into orbit around Saturn marked another major success this year for NASA, which has had two rovers operating on Mars since January and has a spacecraft heading home with samples from a comet encounter.

The NASA Administrator, Sean O'Keefe, in a call from Washington, D.C., called the orbit insertion an ``amazing victory'' and part of a ``double header,'' following a successful spacewalk by the International Space Station crew earlier on Wednesday evening.

A carefully choreographed manoeuvre allowed Cassini to be captured by Saturn's gravity as it arced within 20,100 km of the planet's cloud tops. Using its big radio dish as a shield against small particles, the spacecraft ascended through a gap between two of the rings, then spun around and fired its engine for more than 1 1/2 hours to slow its acceleration. The craft then rotated again to place its shielding antenna in front as it descended back through the gap. At the European Space Agency's space operations centre in Darmstadt, Germany, scientists watched with excitement, as the planned 96-minute burn ended one minute early.

Cassini could have simply flown past Saturn if the burn failed to brake its acceleration properly. ``If you miss that operation, the mission is lost — there was no alternative objective — it had to be successful,'' said Gaele Winters, the ESA's director of operations. — AP

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