The Cassini-Huygens probe (probes, actually) is almost ready to enter Saturn’s orbit — by traveling right through the planet’s rings:
Scientists describe crossing the rings as the mission’s riskiest moment. Cassini-Huygens will avoid the densest bands of ice and dust that make up the rings, but even particles 0.04 inches in diameter scattered in the spaces between them could damage the spacecraft.
“It’s not a slam-dunk,” warned Cassini program manager Robert Mitchell of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Although images sent back by the spacecraft three weeks ago appeared to show a safe route, Mitchell said, “I’ll sleep better when we’re in orbit.”
Assuming all goes well, then things get really cool:
On Christmas Eve, Cassini is to detach and launch the bowl-shaped Huygens space probe, its 705-pound passenger, for a three-week journey that is expected to end with a controlled descent and landing on the surface of Titan.
If it works, this is going to be the best Christmas ever.