An illustration of NASA's Cassini spacecraft flying by Saturn. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft completed its first close approach to Saturn last night as the mission enters its final phase.

Controllers received signals from Cassini early Thursday after it made its first pass between Saturn’s cloud tops and the inner edge of the planet’s rings.

The spacecraft was out of radio contact with Earth during the close approach.

Cassini is now in the “Grand Finale” phase of its mission, with 22 close approaches planned before the mission ends with a dive into the planet’s atmosphere in September. [Los Angeles Times]

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Sen. Ted Cruz says he’s open to updating the Outer Space Treaty to better support commercial space activities. Cruz, at a Senate space subcommittee hearing Wednesday on commercial space regulations, said it may be time to revise the 50-year-old treaty to reflect “new and innovative activity within space.” One of the hearing’s witnesses, Robert Bigelow, backs such a move to enable commercial activities on the moon and elsewhere. Other witnesses focused on federal regulatory issues, from funding for the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation to streamlined licensing of reusable launch vehicles. [SpaceNews]

The first SpaceX mission for the National Reconnaissance Office may be carrying a data relay satellite intended for an elliptical orbit. Satellite observers suspect that the launch of the NROL-76 mission, scheduled for Sunday morning, will place a Boeing-built satellite into a Molniya orbit to provide coverage over polar regions. Boeing may have purchased the launch from SpaceX as part of a delivery-in-orbit contract for the NRO, rather than NRO directly purchasing the launch. [SpaceNews]

The sudden departure of two executives from satellite connectivity provide Global Eagle earlier this year was not because of any legal problems. The company’s new CEO, Jeff Leddy, said in a conference call with investors that the departure of the former CEO and CFO in February “was not a result of any fraud or misconduct” by them. Instead, Leddy said the company decided it needed different leadership to address the company’s current market opportunities and challenges. Delays in the filing of financial reports, the company’s new CFO said, are due to an audit taking “significantly longer than normal” to address recent acquisitions, and not fraud. [SpaceNews]

NASA auditors are concerned about the status of the agency’s current spacesuits and development of new ones. In a report Wednesday, the NASA Office of Inspector General warned that the current inventory of spacesuits used for ISS spacewalks may not be sufficient to support station operations into the 2020s, particularly if the station’s life is extended beyond 2024. The report found that NASA has spent nearly $200 million on new spacesuit designs over the last eight years, but still runs the risk of not having a new suit ready for testing on the ISS by 2024. NASA agreed with a report recommendation to create a formal plan for spacesuit development by the end of September. [SpaceNews]

Arianespace has set revised launch dates for two missions delayed by spaceport protests. Arianespace said the Soyuz launch of the SES-15 satellite is now planned for May 18 and the Ariane 5 launch of the ViaSat-2 and Eutelsat-172b spacecraft is set for June 1. Those launches, originally planned for April, were delayed by protests in French Guiana that disrupted operations at the Kourou spaceport there. The Ariane 5 will return to flight with the May 4 launch of the SGDC and Koreasat-7 satellites. [SpaceNews]

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft suffered a malfunction of one of its two remaining reaction control wheels. JPL said Wednesday that controllers discovered the malfunction during a scheduled communications session Monday, and restored the spacecraft to its normal orientation using hydrazine thrusters Tuesday. The problem won’t affect Dawn’s continuing observations of the dwarf planet Ceres, including planned observations later this week of a crater there with bright material in the center. Dawn is currently in an extended mission at Ceres after NASA rejected a proposal from the project last year to leave orbit and fly past another main belt asteroid. [NASA/JPL]

Mars experienced a 400-million-year break between asteroid bombardments early in its history. Scientists found little evidence for impacts on the planet between 4.5 billion years and the beginning of a phase called the “Late Heavy Bombardment” 3.8 to 4.1 billion years ago. This “doldrums” period is similar to what’s seen in the impact records of the moon, Mercury and the asteroid belt. []

Even if there are many alien civilizations in the galaxy broadcasting, we may never hear them, according to a one analysis. That study concluded that, even if there are radio signals from a large fraction of the stars in the galaxy, the average number of signals that we could detect may be less than one because of limitations of how long the signals would last and how well they could be detected. Other scientists argue that the study makes assumptions that make its conclusions overly pessimistic. [New Scientist]

The first live 4K video feed from the ISS featured a game of ping pong. Astronauts Jack Fischer and Peggy Whitson showed off life on the ISS in a live broadcast associated with the National Association of Broadcasters’ annual conference Wednesday in Las Vegas. During the session they played ping pong using water droplets and performed other simple experiments. NASA has provided 4K, or ultra-high-definition, video from the ISS before, but Wednesday’s event was the first live 4K video stream from space. [GeekWire]

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...