27 Mar 2012

Surface of Saturns moon Enceladus.  The south polar terrain has blue fractures and many folds and ridges.  This view taken from many false-color frames on the Cassini spacecraft.  (Credit:  NASA/JPL)
Surface of Saturns moon Enceladus. The south polar terrain has blue fractures and many folds and ridges. This view taken from many false-color frames on the Cassini spacecraft. (Credit: NASA/JPL)

NASA's Cassini spacecraft is about to make its lowest pass over the south polar region of Saturn's moon Enceladus, entering an area where icy particles and water vapor spray out from its surface.  At the closest approach at 11:30 a.m. PDT (2:30 p.m. EDT) March 27, it will be about 46 miles (74 kilometers) in altitude.

Cassini will attempt to sample particles from the jets using its ion and neutral mass spectrometer.  Scientists will use these tools to analyze the data to learn more about the composition, density and variability of the plume.  NASA was able to revive the Cassini plasma spectrometer, now they can analyze Saturn's magnetic and plasma environment near Enceladus and sample the plume material as well.  The team will use the composite infrared spectrometer to look for hot spots on Enceladus and the cameras will take pictures. 

Artists conception of the March 27 2012 flyby of Enceldus.  (Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Artists conception of the March 27 2012 flyby of Enceldus. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

This will not be the closest pass to the south pole, as NASA is planning on sending it as low as 16 miles (25 kilometers) in 2015.  In 2008, NASA sent the craft 16 miles (25 kilometers) above the equator, that is was the closest pass in general over the moon of Saturn.

Enceladus is the sixth-largest moon of Saturn, discovered in 1789 by William Herschel.  It has a diameter of 310 miles (500 kilometers), about a tenth of Saturn's largest moon Titan, and Enceladus reflects almost all sunlight.  Enceladus is one of only three outer Solar System objects (also Jupiter's Io and Neptune's moon Triton) where active eruptions have been seen.  It is believed from data that there is a body of sub-surface liquid water, making Enceladus important to astrobiologists.  Enceladus' atmosphere contains 91% water vapor, 4% Nitrogen, 3.2% carbon dioxide and 1.7% methane.  By comparison, Earth's atmosphere is 78.08% nitrogen, 20.95% oxygen, 0.93% argon, 0.038% carbon dioxide and 1% water vapor.  In 2011, NASA scientists at an Enceladus Focus Group Conference reported that it is "one of the most habitable spots beyond Earth in the Solar System for life as we know it."

The Tech-Stew Take Home

Enceladus is a very exciting subject in astronomy and astrobiology.  Enceladus is considered to be the most likely candidate for a life-supporting body in the solar system.  Scientists consider it the "next best thing" to Earth, even though it has an ice crust miles thick and average temperatures are hundreds of degrees below zero, though on the south pole they may be as high as -93ºC.  Many believe it may even have a salty ocean under the ice, which may be inhabitable or currently inhabited.  These missions by NASA should shed some light onto the composition of Saturn's moon and possibly changing our understanding of life in the solar system beyond Earth.

Source:  physorg.com, nasa.gov


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