"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", NASA announced on Cassini's Twitter account at 12:09 a.m. after receiving the first status update on Cassini's health.
Alongside harvesting vast quantities of scientific data and some close-up imagery of Saturn's atmosphere, the experience will allow mission operators to further plan how to keep the spacecraft safe for the remaining 21 passes.
"One of the things we can do with the rings is, in the grand finale orbits, for the first time address the question of the origin and the age of the rings", said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at JPL.
As it dove through the gap, Cassini came within about 1,900 miles of Saturn's cloud tops, where the air pressure is 1 bar - a little less than the average atmospheric pressure on Earth at sea level - and within about 200 miles of the innermost visible edge of the rings, the statement said.
During its flight through uncharted territory, Cassini will collect new data about Saturn, including its internal arrangement based on the planet's gravity and magnetic fields, how much material is in its icy rings and the spacecraft will, of course, deliver "ultra-close" images of Saturn's rings and clouds.
"I am delighted to report that Cassini shot through the gap just as we planned and has come out the other side in excellent shape", said Maize.
After re-establishing contact with ground controllers very early Thursday morning, the spacecraft began returning the closest views yet of the gaseous planet's atmosphere. The gap between Saturn and the rings is about 1,500 miles (2,400 km) wide and likely littered with ice particles.
The spacecraft flew through the ring plane at 77,000 miles per hour (124,000 kph) relative to the planet, and at that speed tiny particles could have posed a large threat to its sensitive instruments without the shielding.
While diving in between Saturn and its rings, Cassini could not transmit any data to Earth because of the way it had its antenna oriented. Even more dramatic orbits ahead will bring Cassini closer to Saturn than any spacecraft has dared to go before.
Zurbachen referred to recent analyses of Saturn's moon Enceladus by the Cassini space probe, which has discovered that the moon is capable of hosting alien life since there are hydrothermal reactions taking place below its icy surface. It may be nearing its end, but the Cassini spacecraft isn't done yet. The Cassini spacecraft was launched by the American space agency on October 15, 1997. Meanwhile, Google honored the Cassini probe with a Doodle for its "Grand Finale".
The spacecraft's final dives aim to offer a fresh look at the rings, potentially revealing more about their mass and whether they are old or new.
Cassini's next dive is scheduled to occur on May 2, and thereafter on a weekly basis.