NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has just finished its latest (and second last) flyby of Saturn’s ice-and-water-filled and fascinating moon, Enceladus. Thankfully, a camera was on board.
Enceladus has been a particular focus for NASA for a while now, after the discovery of a warm ocean beneath its icy surface earlier this year.
So, just before Halloween, Cassini flew within 30 miles of the moon’s south pole, capturing some stunning images along the way. It takes a while for the images to get back to Earth but what we have seen already looks great.
“Cassini’s stunning images are giving us a quick look at Enceladus from this ultra-close flyby, but some of the most exciting science is yet to come,” said Linda Spilker, the mission’s project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
Diving through the moon’s plume of gas, Cassini’s “gas analyser” and “dust detector” instruments are now hard at work trying to determine what the makeup of the hidden ocean is.
It will take several weeks to run the data, which will also search for any hydrothermal activity occurring on the ocean floor.
The potential for such activity in this small ocean world has made Enceladus a prime target for future exploration in search of habitable environments in the solar system beyond Earth.
However, now that Mars was found to have some water of its own, most of the world’s focus has shifted to the red planet.
Not NASA’s, though, with the final Enceladus flyby coming in six weeks, when the spacecraft will measure the amount of heat coming from the moon’s interior.
Images of Cassini’s approach to (top), flyby of (middle) and departure from (bottom) Enceladus via NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute