Nasa satellite brushes Saturn's atmosphere
Spacecraft completes first ultra-close dive near planet as end of its mission approaches
Nasa's Cassini spacecraft skimmed Saturn's atmosphere for the first time today, hovering 1,000 miles above its clouds.
The swing-by, the first of five planned ultra-close passes, is part of the exploration of the space between the planet and its rings. By dipping down far enough to skim Saturn's atmosphere, scientists hope samples of collected gases will reveal more about the materials that comprise the planet's interior, the BBC reports.
The closest approach will bring the spacecraft 1,010-1,060 miles above the cloud tops, the Daily Mail says.
Cassini, a joint venture between US, European and Italian space agencies, was launched from Florida's Cape Canaveral in 1997.
It has since amassed "a remarkable list of achievements", says Nasa, including the discovery of habitable environments on two of Saturn's moons, Enceladus and Titan.
Three of Saturn's moons - Tethys, Enceladus, and Mimas - are captured in this shot by Cassini
Cassini captures Saturn's rings and planet Earth in the same frame
The spacecraft's data-gathering days are numbered because its fuel is running out, however, so NASA's plan is to set it on a one-way mission into Saturn's atmosphere on 15 September to dispose of the spacecraft in the planet's upper atmosphere.
The dramatic grande finale will see Cassini "burn up like a meteor and become part of the planet itself," ABC News reports.