This successfully concludes a seven-year, 3.5 billion-km voyage to explore the second-largest planet of the solar system.

  

"We survived the plane of the ring crossing between the F and G rings" at a speed of 70,000 km per hour early on Thursday, a NASA official said prompting celebratory cheers from dozens of engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

  

For 96 minutes, the probe's engines burned to bring its speed down enough to be captured by Saturn's gravitational field, which occurred at 9:12 pm California time (0412 GMT Thursday).

 

On schedule

  

Eighteen minutes later, exactly on schedule, NASA received another signal from the probe's high-gain antenna indicating that all systems were operating normally and that it was ready to begin its four-year mission to explore Saturn.

 

Flight director Webster said probe
couldn't have done better

"We are ready for the big science pay-off, starting now," said Cassini mission manager Robert Mitchell.

  

"It feels awfully good to be on orbit around the lord of the rings," said JPL director Charles Elachi.

 

The orbiting manoeuvre ended a seven-year voyage from the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida, to explore the second-largest planet of the solar system.

 

Orbit entry

  

During its orbit entry, the probe will fly closer to Saturn than it will at any other moment of its four-year mission to come, giving it the chance to study the planet from about 20,000 km above its surface.

  

"The spacecraft couldn't have performed any better," said flight director Julie Webster.

  

"Seventeen countries are involved. It's the Earth going around Saturn"

Ed Weiler,
associate administrator for space science, NASA

The product of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency working together, Cassini-Huygens is the first man-made object to orbit the ringed planet, the sixth from the Sun and second in size after Jupiter.

  

The craft is made up of a US-built orbiter (Cassini) and the European-built probe (Huygens). The US contribution was $2.6 billion and the EU's $660 million. ISA supplied the probe's high-gain antenna which channels all communications with Earth.

  

"Seventeen countries are involved. It's the Earth going around Saturn," said NASA's associate administrator for space science Ed Weiler.

  

The probe is named after Jean-Dominique Cassini, a Paris Observatory director from the 17th century who discovered several of Saturn's moons and detected space between its rings, and the 17th century Dutch astronomer Christian Huyguens, who is believed to have first observed Saturn's rings.