Cassini to perform the deepest-ever dive through the plume of Enceladus

Cassini to perform the deepest-ever dive through the plume of Enceladus

NASA's Cassini spacecraft is scheduled to perform the deepest-ever dive through the icy plume of Saturn's moon Enceladus on October 28, 2015. The scientists involved in the project are hoping this dive will provide new insights into the moon's ocean environment, its chemistry, composition and hydrothermal activity.

Cassini spacecraft was launched way back in 1997, and entered Saturn's orbit by 2004. Ever since, it has been gathering data about Saturn's unique ring features, composition and magnetic field. Not long after it settled in Saturn's orbit, the spacecraft discovered Enceladus has a global ocean and that, most likely, hydrothermal activity is lurking underneath its surface.

The spacecraft also discovered other geologic activity unfolding over the icy moon, such as its vivid plume, most likely originating from the ocean below, as well as the water vapor and organic molecules over its south pole.

Video credit: NASA JPL

The flyby scheduled for October 28, will be the deepest dive so far conducted through the Enceladus plume.

NASA's scientists hope this flythrough will provide new insights about the possibilities of life within the ocean environment of the moon, and how much hydrothermal activity is going on under its surface.

The hydrothermal activity of Enceladus is an important issue, as it holds major implications for the ocean's potential habitability with simpler forms of life. To provide as much data as possible to answer these questions the spacecraft will try to detect molecular hydrogen within the environment.

Video credit: NASA JPL

The chemistry of the plume is one other important issue the scientists are hoping to gain a better understanding of. This is one of the reasons why this time, the low altitudes of the moon have been chosen for the encounter, as they can provide the Cassini with an opportunity to gain more sensitive readings of heavier, more massive, possibly organic molecules. 

Researchers believe the data collected during this flythrough will also help them discover whether the icy plume is composed of individual, column-like jets or sinuous, icy curtain eruptions, and how much of the material the plume is spraying into space. This data carries important implications for understanding how the plume material gets to the surface and how long Enceladus has been active.

Featured image: NASA's Cassini spacecraft will sample an extraterrestrial ocean on Wednesday, October 28, when it flies directly through a plume of icy spray coming from Saturn's moon Enceladus. Image credit: NASA JPL


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