NASA's Cassini spacecraft sent the closest-ever images of Saturn on Thursday after surviving its first plunge inside the planet's rings, the US space agency said.
A stream of pictures showing Saturn's swirling clouds, massive hurricane and odd six-sided vortex weather system were transmitted back to Earth by Cassini, which has been exploring Saturn for 13 years.
Now in its final laps around Saturn, Cassini dove through the narrow gap between the planet and its innermost ring on Wednesday, where no spacecraft has ever gone before. It was the first of 22 planned close encounters to bring the robotic probe into unexplored territory between Saturn's cloud tops and its rings.
'Cassini spacecraft has once again blazed a trail, showing us new wonders and demonstrating where our curiosity can take us if we dare,' National Aeronautics and Space Administration planetary sciences chief Jim Green said in a statement.
Cassini is expected to photograph several small inner moons and study the planet's winds, clouds, auroras and gravity. The information could help scientists find the source of Saturn's magnetic field, determine how fast the gas giant rotates and figure out what lies beneath its layers of clouds.
NASA officials are not certain Cassini will survive all its ring dives. The gap between Saturn and the rings is about 1,500 miles (2,400 km) wide and likely littered with ice particles.