Cassini, which has been circling Saturn and its entourage of moons since 2004, will end its mission in September with a suicidal plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere to avoid any chance of contaminating potential life on Enceladus. But even if Cassini could carry on for years, it was not designed to search for life.
“We’ve come as far as we can go, so it remains for a future mission to detect life at Enceladus,” Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker, with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., told reporters on Thursday.
Ideally, scientists would like to drill through Enceladus’s ice cap and sample its underground ocean. An easier, lower-cost mission, however, would be to do what Cassini did, which is to fly through the plumes of material that continuously shoot out into space from the moon’s southern polar region.