NASA’s Cassini spacecraft transmits images of Saturn’s icy, geologically active moon Enceladus, acquired during a dramatic flyby in which the probe passes about 30 miles (49 kilometers) above the moon’s south polar region.
IN SPACE (OCTOBER 28, 2015) (NASA.GOV) – NASA’s Cassini has transmitted the latest images of Saturn’s icy, geologically active moon Enceladus captured during a flyby on Thursday (October 28).
Cassini came within 30 miles (49 kilometers) of the little moon’s south polar region to gather samples from plumes of water, ice and organic matter blasting from Saturn’s small, ocean-bearing moon.
“The spacecraft actually plunged close enough to the service so that it could fly over individual fractures that are erupting and it could distinguish very localized eruptions, jets from one another and it is the jets that feed into the larger plume so if it is down low enough to taste individual jets this gives us a much better sampling of heavier materials,” Cassini Project Mission Scientist and Research Associate at Cornell Center For Astrophysics and Planetary Science Paul Helfenstein said.
“One of the things that this gives us the opportunity to do is sample organic compounds that we couldn’t sample before.”
The spacecraft does not have instruments to directly detect life, but scientists hope to ferret out details about the underground ocean that is believed to be the source of Enceladus’ geyser-like plumes. Scientists suspect tidal forces are keeping the ocean liquid.
Cassini discovered the plumes, which stretch hundreds of miles into space, in 2005, a year after reaching Saturn.
“They are looking is a possibility that hydrogen gas will be erupted with the plumes. This is important because it is kind of a dead give away that there may hydrotherrmal activity, hydrothermal vents occurring at the bottom of ocean where the water is in contact with hot rock. We see hydrothermal vents on Earth in deep sea environments where we find very unusual organism but it is also an area where chemical reactions take place between rocky materials and produce organic compounds that are thought to be precursors to life,” Helfenstein said.
During repeat flybys of Enceladus, Saturn’s sixth-largest moon and just 310 miles (500 km) in diameter, scientists confirmed that the moon holds a slightly salty, liquid ocean beneath its crust.
Saturn, a gaseous planet and the second-largest in the solar system, is about nine time the size of Earth and is the sixth farthest from the sun.
The spacecraft will continue transmitting its data from the encounter with Enceladus for the next several days.
Scientists hope the recent data will allow them to determine if the moon has hydrothermal vents on its sea floor, an indication that small moon could support life.
Similar extremely hot, perpetual-night deep ocean habitats on Earth support a wide variety of life.