Saturday, October 17, 2015

NASA's Cassini Sends Back Images of Saturn's Moon Enceladus

This view from NASA's Cassini spacecraft shows battered terrain around the north pole of Saturn's icy moon Enceladus. Craters crowd and overlap each other, each one recording an impact in the moon's distant past. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida - Just one day before its 18th year in space, NASA's Cassini spacecraft captured its best views of the northern extremes of Saturn's icy, ocean-bearing moon Enceladus. The spacecraft obtained the images during its October 14 flyby, passing 1,142 miles above the moon's surface. Mission controllers say the spacecraft will continue transmitting images and other data from the encounter back to Earthe over the next several days.

Scientists expected the north polar region of Enceladus to be heavily cratered, based on low-resolution images from the Voyager mission, but the new high-resolution Cassini images show a landscape of stark contrasts. "The northern regions are crisscrossed by a spidery network of gossamer-thin cracks that slice through the craters," said Paul Helfenstein, a member of the Cassini imaging team at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. "These thin cracks are ubiquitous on Enceladus, and now we see that they extend across the northern terrains as well."

Cassini's next encounter with Enceladus is planned for October 28th, when the spacecraft will come within 30 miles of the moon's south polar region. During that flyby, Cassini will make its deepest-ever dive through the moon's plume of icy spray, sampling the chemistry of the extraterrestrial ocean beneath the ice. Mission scientists are hopeful data from this encounter will provide evidence of how much hydrothermal activity is occurring in the moon's ocean, along with more detailed insights about the ocean's chemistry -- both of which relate to the potential habitability of Enceladus.

Cassini's final close Enceladus flyby will take place on December 19th at an altitude of 3,106 miles when the spacecraft will measure the amount of heat coming from the moon's interior.

Cassini launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on October 15, 1997.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft zoomed by Saturn's icy moon Enceladus on Oct. 14, 2015, capturing this stunning image of the moon's north pole. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute