Cassini Prepares to Taste the Oceans of Enceladus During Historic “Plume Dive”

NASA Artist Cutaway of Enceladus Credits: : NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA Artist Cutaway of Enceladus
Credits: : NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is about to make a return visit to one of the most interesting environments we have yet discovered in the Saturn system, and that is saying something.

On Wednesday, October 28th, Cassini will make a low flyby over the South Pole of Enceladus, the 300 mile diameter moon which appears to contain an ice-encrusted global ocean with salinity and PH levels not all that different from Earth’s own.

The flyby, occurring at 19,000 mph and at an altitude of 30 miles over the surface, will sail Cassini straight through a concentration of ice geysers which are jetting out into space from a series of “tiger stripes” crossing the polar region.

At a mere 30 microns size and diffusely spread, the particles should pose no harm to the spacecraft, but it should give mission scientists the chance to study the remarkable features at very close range, offering deeper insight into the chemistry of the ocean lying below and determining whether or not it is a likely candidate to harbor life.

Enceladustigerstripes

Cassini track across Enceladus south polar region White circles along “tiger stripes” indicate location of water  jets. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Unfortunately, Cassini having only discovered the geysers in 2005, did not launch with the instrumentation necessary to make that determination, but the high speed pass could help shape the design of future missions, either to back to Enceladus, or more likely, to Jupiter’s moon Europa, which is believed to possess water jets as well.

Cassini will also be taking photographs during its brief visit, but due to the high speed relative to ground and the fact the pole is currently in twilight, illuminated not by the Sun, but rather by “Saturnshine,” it may take several days of processing to clean up the images.

 

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1 Comment on "Cassini Prepares to Taste the Oceans of Enceladus During Historic “Plume Dive”"

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  1. petemccarn says:

    We live in a remarkable age, one in which we can see things that we can’t imagine. To know that a spacecraft can be designed to examine Saturn in exquisite detail but can be repurposed to investigate new discoveries is a tribute to what I call “the art of science”.

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