LOS ANGELES, April 29 (Xinhua) -- After almost 20 years in space, NASA's Cassini spacecraft has successfully completed the first dive between Saturn and its rings, sending back the closest-ever views of Saturn's atmosphere after about 20 hours of being out of contact with Earth.
"We did it! Cassini is in contact with Earth and sending back data after a successful dive through the gap between Saturn and its rings," the mission team tweeted on Thursday.
As it dove through the gap, Cassini came within 1,900 miles (about 3,000km) of the tops of Saturn's clouds and about 200 miles (320 km) from the inner rings, according to the U.S. space agency.
"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," Earl Maize, Cassini project manager of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement.
Mission control positioned Cassini's large, dish-shaped high-gain antenna as a shield. This meant that the spacecraft was out of contact with Earth during the ring-plane crossing, which took place on Wednesday.
Following its last close flyby of the large moon Titan last week, Cassini began what mission planners are calling its "Grand Finale," the final chapter of its remarkable story of exploration, making a series of 22 weekly dives between the rings and the planet. Cassini's next dive through the gap is scheduled for May 2.
Finally, the long-lived spacecraft will make a mission-ending plunge into the planet's atmosphere on Sept. 15.
Launched in 1997, Cassini has been touring the Saturn system since arriving there in 2004. During its journey, Cassini has made numerous dramatic discoveries, including a global ocean within Enceladus and liquid methane seas on Titan. But the mission is drawing near its end because the spacecraft is running low on fuel.