After a decade spent studying Saturn’s moons, NASA/ESA’s robotic spacecraft Cassini initiates one final close encounter with Saturn’s moon Enceladus in a series of three.
The feat was accomplished October 14 at 6:41 a.m. EDT (10:41 a.m. GMT) nearly two years before the mission is slated to end.
But the encounter is not unique. Cassini plans two more in the coming months. On October 28, the probe will get closest to the icy moon’s surface, at about 30 miles (49 km) above surface. The historic encounter is designed to examine the moon’s icy plumes at its South Pole. NASA engineers scheduled the encounter for a time when those plumes were most visible.
On December 19, Cassini is expected to have its last close encounter with Enceladus. The probe will whizz by the icy moon’s surface at an altitude of 1,142 miles (1,839 kilometers). On that occasion, the probe will gather more data on how the moon’s subsurface heat influences its geysers.
But this Wednesday’s flyby brought the spacecraft within 1,142 miles (1,839 km) of the icy moon’s North Pole. On previous occasions, the feat was not attainable because the region was not illuminated by the summer sun as it was this week. On Wednesday, scientists looked for hints on geological activity on Saturn’s sixth largest moon.
“We’ve been following a trail of clues on Enceladus for 10 years now,”
said Bonnie Buratti, one of the members of Cassini mission team and icy moon researcher with NASA’s JPL.
Buratti added that after 10 year of observations the geological activity found on Enceladus was a huge surprise. Scientists still try to learn more about the celestial body’s history and how it managed to be this way.
Cassini probe’s data showed that the moon has a global ocean underneath its icy crust, geysers, and Earth-like hydrothermal activity. This makes Enceladus as one the most habitable places in our solar system to date.
Jonathan Lunine, a Cassini mission scientist and researcher at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, recently said that the presence of a global ocean and hydrothermal activity may be evidence that the icy moon may be a hospitable place for microbial life just like our planet’s seafloor is. Lunine added that imagining such scenario was ‘very tempting’ to his team.
In the following close encounters with Enceladus, NASA scientists plan to gather as much information on the moon as they can since they will not have a similar chance for many years to come. Cassini is slated to end its mission on Enceladus in 2017.
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