Closest Enceladus Flyby Yet

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Cassini took this image of Enceladus’ water ice plumes on November 27, 2005.  New pictures and other data from the most recent flyby on Wednesday, March 12, 2008 are expected on Thursday, March 13, 2008.  Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute – “Jet Blue

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has successfully completed the closest flyby of Saturn’s mysterious moon Enceladus yet. Coming as close as 52 kilometers (32.3 miles) from the surface of Enceladus, Cassini used its array of instruments to sample the water ice geysers that erupt from the moon’s south pole. The close, and somewhat risky, flyby maybe provide just the required data to begin understanding the source of these geysers. These data have started to arrive at the Earth and will be completely downloaded over the next several hours.

On Wednesday, March 12, 2008 around noon PST, Cassini flew away from Enceladus along the outer extent of the plume that surprised scientists just over two years ago. The surprise was due to the moon’s small size; small moons were generally thought to be inactive, as no internal forces would be present to drive any surface activities. Whatever is driving the spectacular activity on Enceladus remains a mystery.

Recently, two sources for the geysers have been proposed. The “dry” theory suggests that tidal forces along the “Tiger Stripes” fractures discovered at the moon’s south pole rub ice until it is heated sufficiently to escape. The “wet” theory suggest that these tidal forces instead heat a spot in the moon’s interior, resulting in enough heat to melt a lake or ocean of liquid water just below the surface. This pressurized water then escapes through the discovered fractures.

The latest flyby is intended to sample the geysers to determine which of these theories might be correct, or suggest alternative theories. An underground reservoir of liquid water and the forces required might create a potentially habitable location and an intriguing site to look for life. Cassini will look for the presence of sodium, among other elements and compounds, to support the “wet” theory.

Cassini is nearing the completion of its nominal four-year mission to explore Saturn, its rings, and its moons. The mission has been extended for two more years, allowing mission planners to take more risks. Scientists believe that the ice and other particles in the geyser are tiny enough to pose no harm to Cassini. If confirmed, this will allow scientists to fly Cassini closer yet in upcoming explorations of Enceladus. Raw data could start appearing on the Cassini website as early as 5:00 AM PST on Thursday and mission scientists hope to have a preliminary analysis of data completed by Thursday afternoon.

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