Space & Innovation

Cassini Zeros in on Daring Dive Into Enceladus's Plumes

On Wednesday, NASA's Saturn-orbiting Cassini spacecraft will take a deep but quick plunge through plumes of water vapor shooting out hundreds of miles into space from the planet’s small, ocean-bearing moon Enceladus.

NASA's Saturn-orbiting Cassini spacecraft is on track for a deep but quick plunge through plumes of water vapor shooting out hundreds of miles into space from the planet's small, ocean-bearing moon Enceladus.

Cassini, which has been surveying the Saturn system for 11 years, will fly as close as 30 miles above the moon's southern polar region, about 20 miles closer than any previous pass through the plumes.

PHOTO: Cassini Watches Enceladus Fizz into Space

Scientists believe the plumes stem from a global liquid ocean that is sealed beneath Enceladus' icy face. They suspect tidal heating is responsible for the ocean, a process which also may mean the interior of Enceladus is suitable for life.

Cassini does not have life-detection instruments, but the flyby, which will take place at around 1 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, is expected to provide key details that will help scientists assess whether Enceladus is a suitable habitat for life.

For example, scientists want to confirm if molecular hydrogen is present in the plumes, a finding that would support other evidence of hydrothermal activity on the sea floor.

"The amount of hydrogen emission will reveal how much hydrothermal activity is actually occurring ... with implications for the amount of energy that's available -- energy (being) a key ingredient for habitability," said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

ANALYSIS: Enceladus Spreads Ghostly Ice Tendrils Around Saturn

Scientists also want to better understand the chemistry of the material in the plumes, which in addition to water vapor and ice contain organics and a variety of gases, including methane and carbon dioxide. Collecting and analyzing samples from closer to the base of the plumes should yield larger particles and higher concentrations of gas.

"We might find new organics that we haven't seen previously, or are just at the limits of our detection," Spilker said.

A third goal of the flyby is to provide details on the structure of the plumes, such as whether they jet, formation-style, from cracks in the ice, or if they spray like a curtain along the whole length of the fractures. That information will help scientists determine how long Enceladus has been venting water into space.

The 19,000 mph-flyby will be over in a fraction of a second, but scientists say the drop of water Cassini will collect is enough to spill some of Enceladus' secrets.

ANALYSIS: The Geysers of Enceladus May be an Illusion

"This is a very big step in a new era of exploring ocean worlds in our solar system ... bodies with great potential to provide oases for life," said Cassini program scientist Curt Niebur.

Cassini, which is due to end its mission in 2017, is slated to make a final pass through Enceladus' plumes in December.

In related research, scientists on Tuesday released the results of laboratory tests with gases that are similar in composition to those observed in Encleadus' plumes. Writing in this week's Nature Communications, the researchers were able to create liquids at conditions found on Enceladus. The results suggest that the same minerals formed on Enceladus have been found in primitive meteorites, and that Enceladus may have formed very early in the solar system's history.

The lab tests show Enceladus also could be producing hydrogen, "which could provide energy for possible life forms beneath the surface," a summary of the research said.

Plumes of water vapor erupt from Saturn's icy moon Enceladus during a previous Cassini flyby.

On July 1, 2004, NASA's Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn orbit seven years after launch from Earth in 1997. Over ten years after arriving at the majestic gas giant, Cassini has profoundly transformed our understanding of the planet's dynamic atmosphere, rings and moons. Now the mission is entering the final stages of its prolific Saturnian odyssey and mission planners hope to use what fuel remains on board for a series of daring "proximal orbits"

through

the ring plane in 2016; a final phase called the "Cassini Grand Finale."

ANALYSIS: Cassini Grand Finale: Saturn Mission's Daring End

The science that Cassini has made since orbital insertion has been nothing short of mind blowing, so let's just take a small sample of key discoveries and stunning observations as featured on Discovery News from the past 12 months as Cassini sailed through its 10th year of Saturnian exploration and toward the history books.

The Hexagon etched into Saturn's upper atmosphere in its north pole is one of the most enduring mysteries of the solar system -- it was first observed by the Voyager probes in the early 1980's. Thought to be caused by high-altitude jet streams, the hexagon, as recently imaged by the Cassini mission, also seems to rotate with Saturn's inner core and global magnetic field. Although the underlying flow dynamics of this feature is not entirely understood.

MORE: Cassini Photographs Saturn's Stunning Hexagon

There are few worlds that hold more promise than Saturn's largest moon Titan. The moon is known to have a thick atmosphere, large bodies of liquid methane and ethane, hydrocarbon-rich landscapes filled with rivers and valleys, and vast dune fields. One would be mistaken in thinking this moon is in fact an embryonic Earth, filled with organic potential. It may be frozen and unsuitable for life as

we

know it, but astrobiologists dream of having a follow-up mission to Titan after seeing the European Huygens lander (which hitched a ride to Saturn on board Cassini) float down and land on the moon in 2005.

VIDEO: Is Titan Older Than Saturn?

To add to the familiarity of Titan with a young Earth, Cassini spotted waves in one of the large Titanian seas, whipped up by surface winds. Shown here at an oblique angle, the waves can be seen glinting in the sunlight.

MORE: Cassini Spies Wind-Rippled Sea on Titan

Zooming in on Titan's vast dune fields during multiple flybys, Cassini has shown us even more Earth-like aeolian (wind-blown) features. In the case of Titan's black dunes, small grains of organic compounds have been blown into rippled 'seas' of their own.

MORE: Cassini Spies Titan's Undulating Dunes

With Cassini's high-resolution cameras, the mission has captured countless dreamy shots of the planet's 62 moons. Shown here is one of Discovery News readers' favorites: Saturn's moon Mimas looming ominously with the smaller moon Pandora passing behind. Mimas is also nicknamed the "Death Star Moon" in reference to Star Wars, with the moon's large Herschel Crater resembling the Death Star's planet-killing superweapon.

MORE: Saturn's Pandora Flirts with 'Death Star' Moon

When it comes to organic chemistry, it's not all about Titan. The small icy moon of Enceladus isn't only famous for its impressive water-rich geysers that also have hints of life-giving chemistry, there's also the possibility that the moon has extensive sub-surface seas of liquid water. It is almost like a mini-Europa, Jupiter's second-largest moon, and scientists are keen to find out what lies beneath both moons' cracked crust.

MORE: Saturn's Moon Enceladus Has Underground Ocean

In a surprise discovery this year, Cassini made the chance observation of something in one of Saturn's rings. Could this bright knot in the outer edge of the gas giant's A ring be the birth of a baby moon? Astronomers think it might, providing new clues as to the formation of natural satellites and proving that although our solar system is old, its planets still have active moon-formation processes persisting to this day.

MORE: Saturn May Have Given Birth to a Baby Moon

Like Saturn's weird hexagon, the bright 'spokes' in Saturn's rings have puzzled astronomers for some time. Originally spotted by the Voyager flybys in the early 1980s, Cassini has been monitoring the phenomenon and revealed that they are not caused by gravitational interactions in or around Saturn. Instead, they are most likely generated by the interaction between dust in the planet's B ring and Saturn's global magnetic field that threads through the ring system.

MORE: Mysterious 'Spokes' in Saturn's Rings are Still There

In a breathtaking observation, the impact of one of Saturn's tiny moons on the planet's outermost ring was captured by Cassini. Prometheus, which is only 53 miles across, periodically careens through the F-ring, creating channels and streamers through the icy particles.

MORE: Tiny Moon Prometheus Rips-Up Saturn's Outer Ring

In one of the most iconic space photographs ever taken, in July, 2013, Cassini looked back at Earth from nearly 900 million miles away. Earth is just a dot of light and the moon is even smaller. This image reminds us, like Voyager's famous "Pale Blue Dot" photo did in the 1990s, how tiny we are when compared with the immensity of space and Cassini continues to inspire the people on our tiny planet that we are capable of doing great things.

MORE: The Pale Blue Dot: Here's Looking At Us, Earthlings