Cassini begins dive between Saturn's rings
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The dangerous nature of the maneuver has resulted in NASA temporarily losing contact with the spacecraft.

As Cassini nears the end of its mission, the space agency has opted to send it on a series of increasingly risky dives between Saturn's rings, recording data and taking pictures as it goes.

Part of the probe's "grand finale" following almost 20 years in space, the act of flying so close to the gas giant's atmosphere has the potential to inflict lethal damage at any time.

To help improve Cassini's likelihood of surviving, scientists have taken the decision to point the spacecraft's large antenna in the direction of travel so that it can act as a makeshift shield.

A downside of this approach however is that, for now at least, NASA has lost contact with it.

If Cassini survives though, something that is likely to become apparent within 24 hours, it should have managed to record a wealth of new data about Saturn and its rings.

"No spacecraft has ever gone through the unique region that we'll attempt to boldly cross 22 times," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate.

"What we learn from Cassini's daring final orbits will further our understanding of how giant planets, and planetary systems everywhere, form and evolve."

"This is truly discovery in action to the very end.