Cassini’s done it again! Soaring over Saturn’s moon Enceladus back on November 6, the spacecraft obtained the highest-resolution images yet of the moon’s south polar terrain, revealing surface details with visible, infrared and radar imaging that have never been seen before.
Of particular interest are new image swaths acquired by the spacecraft’s synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) instrument, which has never before been used on Enceladus. The radar, which is highly sensitive to surface textures, reveals some extremely bright regions that have surprised scientists.
“It’s puzzling why this is some of the brightest stuff Cassini has seen,” said Steve Wall, deputy team lead of Cassini’s radar team based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. “One possibility is that the area is studded with rounded ice rocks. But we can’t yet explain how that would happen.”
The SAR images did not focus on the moon’s now-famous “tiger stripe” fractures (called sulci) which are the sources of its icy jets. Instead, Cassini scanned areas a few hundred miles around the stripes. These regions have not been extensively imaged before and this new data shows surface patterns and elevations that had been previously unknown.
Some of the steep grooves in the imaged areas were shown to be as deep as 2,100 feet (650 m), and 1.2 miles (2 km) wide.
Cassini passed by the 318-mile (511-km) -wide moon at 04:49 UTC on November 6, 2011. Cassini’s radar instrument was built by JPL and the Italian Space Agency, working with team members from the U.S. and several European countries. Previously used to image the surface of Titan, which is hidden from view by a thick atmosphere, this is the first time the instrument was used on Enceladus.
Here’s a video from the imaging team below: