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Spacecraft flies between Saturn and rings in historic first

a still from the short film "Cassini's Grand Finale," with the spacecraft diving between Saturn and the planet's innermost ring.

A still from the short film "Cassini's Grand Finale," with the spacecraft diving between Saturn and the planet's innermost ring. NASA via AP

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has ventured into the never-before-explored region between Saturn and its rings.

But flight controllers won’t know how everything went until Thursday when they are back in touch with the craft.

Cassini was out of radio contact with Earth early Wednesday as it became the first spacecraft to enter the gap between Saturn and its rings. That’s because its big dish antenna was maneuvered face forward to protect science instruments from potentially damaging ring particles.

If Cassini survives this first round, it will make 21 more crossings before its demise in September.

Launched in 1997, Cassini has been orbiting Saturn since 2004. Because the fuel tank is practically empty, NASA decided on one last dangerous, but science-rich adventure.