The ongoing investigation performed by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which has been orbiting Saturn’s planetary system since 2004, is about to take another step forward. Two weeks ago, NASA was able to capture the first detailed images of the northern polar region of Enceladus, Saturn’s moon. Two days from now another flyby will take place, this time over the South Pole.
Researchers originally expected Enceladus to be a tiny ball of solid ice, but during previous investigations they have determined that there might also be some kind of life source on this moon due to hydrothermal activity. The spacecraft will now fly 30 miles from the southern pole, the closest the spacecraft has ever been to the plumes, at a speed of 19,000 miles per hour during a time frame of just under a minute.
Samples from the liquid ocean beneath the frozen surface will be seized during this rapid encounter. Even though Cassini can’t tell explicitly if life already exists, data can be gathered so that researchers can determine if microbes could live there. This might be the necessary evidence to corroborate the existence of life on this moon.
Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California said, “By measuring the amount of hydrogen coming out, we think we can better understand the amount of energy available in this ocean, this potential habitat for life,” as reported by the North Carolina Public Radio.
Scientists are also going to analyze the material of plumes in order to understand its chemistry. These plumes are known to contain water vapor and ice, but certain organics and a variety of gases such as methane and carbon dioxide may also be found in them.
“We might find new organics that we haven’t seen previously, or are just at the limits of our detection,” Spilker added.
Images from the first flyby revealed high definition pictures of the northern Polar Regions, which had never been photographed before because of shadows that covered it. They were published on NASA’s Cassini Solstice Mission image gallery.
The last flyby of Enceladus before the end of the year will take place on December 19th. Its main purpose will be to measure the temperature of the moon’s core, coming within 3,106 miles of the moon’s surface. This $3.2 billion Cassini mission will come to an end in 2017 after the spacecraft has collected data about the chemistry of the ocean that lies underneath the icy surface.
Source: Discovery News