LATEST NEWS Cassini Begins Series of Flybys with Close-up of Saturn Moon Enceladus
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft will wrap up its time in the region of Saturn’s large, icy moons with a series of three close encounters with Enceladus starting Wednesday, Oct. 14. Images are expected to begin arriving one to two days after the flyby, which will provide the first opportunity for a close-up look at the north polar region of Enceladus.
Wednesday’s flyby is considered a moderately close approach for Cassini, which will pass at an altitude of 1,142 miles (1,839 kilometers) above the moon’s surface. Closest approach to Enceladus will occur at 3:41 a.m. PDT (6:41 a.m. EDT). The spacecraft’s final two approaches will take place in late October and mid-December.
During Cassini’s early-mission encounters with the moon, the northern terrain of Enceladus was masked by wintry darkness. Now that the summer sun is shining on the high northern latitudes, scientists will be looking for signs of ancient geological activity similar to the geyser-spouting, tiger-stripe fractures in the moon’s south polar region. Features observed during the flyby could help them understand whether the north also was geologically active at some time in the past.
“We’ve been following a trail of clues on Enceladus for 10 years now,” said Bonnie Buratti, a Cassini science team member and icy moons expert at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “The amount of activity on and beneath this moon’s surface has been a huge surprise to us. We’re still trying to figure out what its history has been, and how it came to be this way.”
Since Cassini’s 2005 discovery of continually-erupting fountains of icy material on Enceladus, the Saturn moon has become one of the most promising places in the solar system to search for present-day habitable environments. Mission scientists announced evidence in March that hydrothermal activity may be occurring on the seafloor of the moon’s underground ocean. In September they broke news that its ocean — previously thought to be only a regional sea — was, in fact, global.
“The global nature of Enceladus’ ocean and the inference that hydrothermal systems might exist at the ocean’s base strengthen the case that this small moon of Saturn may have environments similar to those at the bottom of our own ocean,” said Jonathan Lunine, an interdisciplinary scientist on the Cassini mission at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. “It is therefore very tempting to imagine that life could exist in such a habitable realm, a billion miles from our home.”
The Oct. 14 encounter will serve as a prelude to the main event, a flyby of Enceladus on Wednesday, Oct. 28, during which Cassini will come dizzyingly close to the icy moon, passing a mere 30 miles (49 kilometers) above the moon’s south polar region. During this encounter, Cassini will make its deepest-ever dive through the moon’s plume of icy spray, collecting images and valuable data about what’s going on beneath the frozen surface. Cassini scientists are hopeful data from that flyby will provide evidence of how much hydrothermal activity is occurring in the moon’s ocean, and how the amount of activity impacts the habitability of Enceladus’ ocean.
Cassini’s final close flyby on Dec. 19 will examine how much heat is coming from the moon’s interior from an altitude of 3,106 miles (4,999 kilometers).
An online toolkit for all three final Enceladus flybys is available at:
Cassini arrived at Saturn in 2004 and still has about two years left on its mission. Beginning in November, mission controllers will begin to slowly raise Cassini’s orbit out of the space around the Saturn’s equator, where flybys of the large moons are more common. Coming up are a number of closest-ever brushes with the small moons that huddle near the planet’s rings.
“We’ll continue observing Enceladus and its remarkable activity for the remainder of our precious time at Saturn,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at JPL. “But these three encounters will be our last chance to see this fascinating world up close for many years to come.”
The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
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Long, sinuous, tendril-like structures seen in the vicinity of Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus originate directly from geysers erupting from its surface, according to scientists studying images from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.
This result is published online today in a study in the Astronomical Journal, along with additional insights into the nature of the structures.
“We’ve been able to show that each unique tendril structure can be reproduced by particular sets of geysers on the moon’s surface,” said Colin Mitchell, a Cassini imaging team associate at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and lead author of the paper. Mitchell and colleagues used computer simulations to follow the trajectories of ice grains ejected from individual geysers. The geysers, which were discovered by Cassini in 2005, are jets of tiny water ice particles, water vapor and simple organic compounds.
Under certain lighting conditions, Cassini’s wide-view images showing icy material erupting from Enceladus reveal faint, finger-like features, dubbed “tendrils” by the imaging team. The tendrils reach into Saturn’s E ring — the ring in which Enceladus orbits — extending tens of thousands of miles (or kilometers) away from the moon. Since the tendrils were discovered, scientists have thought they were the result of the moon’s geysering activity and the means by which Enceladus supplies material to the E ring. But the ghostly features had never before been traced directly to geysers on the surface.
Because the team was able to show that tendril structures of different shapes correspond to different sizes of geyser particles, the team was able to zero in on the sizes of the particles forming them. They found the tendrils are composed of particles with diameters no smaller than about a hundred thousandth of an inch, a size consistent with the measurements of E-ring particles made by other Cassini instruments.
As the researchers examined images from different times and positions around Saturn, they also found that the detailed appearance of the tendrils changes over time. “It became clear to us that some features disappeared from one image to the next,” said John Weiss, an imaging team associate at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington, and an author on the paper.
The authors suspect that changes in the tendrils’ appearance likely result from the cycle of tidal stresses — squeezing and stretching of the moon as it orbits Saturn — and its control of the widths of fractures from which the geysers erupt. The stronger the tidal stresses raised by Saturn at any point on the fractures, the wider the fracture opening and the greater the eruption of material. The authors will investigate in future work whether this theory explains the tendrils’ changing appearance.
There is even more that can be extracted from the images, the scientists say. “As the supply lanes for Saturn’s E ring, the tendrils give us a way to ascertain how much mass is leaving Enceladus and making its way into Saturn orbit,” said Carolyn Porco, team leader for the imaging experiment and a coauthor on the paper. “So, another important step is to determine how much mass is involved, and thus estimate how much longer the moon’s sub-surface ocean may last.” An estimate of the lifetime of the ocean is important in understanding the evolution of Enceladus over long timescales.
Because of its significance to the investigation of possible extraterrestrial habitable zones, Enceladus is a major target of investigation for the final years of the Cassini mission. Many observations, including imaging of the plume and tendril features, and thermal observations of the surface of its south polar geyser basin, are planned during the next couple of years.
The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, manages the mission for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. The Cassini imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo.
New images released today can be found at:
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|A dual view of Saturn’s icy moon Rhea marks the return of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft to the realm of the planet’s icy satellites. This follows nearly two years during which the spacecraft’s orbits carried it high above the planet’s poles. Those paths limited the mission’s ability to encounter the moons, apart from regular flybys of Titan.
Cassini’s orbit will remain nearly equatorial for the remainder of 2015, during which the spacecraft will have four close encounters with Titan, two with Dione and three with the geyser-moon, Enceladus.
The two views of Rhea were taken about an hour-and-a-half apart on Feb. 9, 2015, when Cassini was about 30,000 to 50,000 miles (50,000 to 80,000 kilometers) away from the moon. Cassini officially began its new set of equatorial orbits on March 16.
The views show an expanded range of colors from those visible to human eyes in order to highlight subtle color variations across Rhea’s surface. In natural color, the moon’s surface is fairly uniform. The image at right represents the highest-resolution color view of Rhea released to date.
The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, manages the mission for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. The Cassini imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.
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