Cassini Images Of Enceladus Highlight Possible Cradle For Life

During its long mission to Saturn, the Cassini spacecraft has given us image after spectacular image of Saturn, its rings, and Saturn’s moons. The images of Saturn’s moon Enceladus are of particular interest when it comes to the search for life.

At first glance, Enceladus appears similar to other icy moons in our Solar System. But Cassini has shown us that Enceladus could be a cradle for extra-terrestrial life.

Our search for life in the Solar System is centred on the presence of liquid water. Maybe we don’t know for sure if liquid H2O is required for life. But the Solar System is huge, and the effort required to explore it is immense. So starting our search for life with the search for liquid water is wise. And in the search for liquid water, Enceladus is a tantalizing target.

Cassini captured this image of Enceladus with Saturn’s rings. The vapor plumes are slightly visible at the south polar region (bottom of image). Image: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Though Enceladus looks every bit like a frozen, lifeless world on its surface, it’s what lies beneath its frigid crust that is exciting. Enceladus appears to have a subsurface ocean, at least in it’s south polar region. And that ocean may be up to 10 km. deep.

Before we dive into that, (sorry), here are a few basic facts about Enceladus:

  • Enceladus is Saturn’s sixth largest moon
  • Enceladus is about 500 km in diameter (Earth’s Moon is 3,474 km in diameter)
  • Enceladus was discovered in 1789 by William Herschel
  • Enceladus is one of the most reflective objects in our Solar System, due to its icy surface

In 2005, Cassini first spied plumes of frozen water vapor erupting from the southern polar region. Called cryovolcanoes, subsequent study of them determined that they are the likely source of Saturn’s E Ring. The existence of these plumes led scientists to suspect that their source was a sub-surface ocean under Enceladus’ ice crust.

This close up image of Enceladus clearly shows multiple plumes erupting into space. Image: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Finding plumes of water erupting from a moon is one thing, but it’s not just water. It’s salt water. Further study showed that the plumes also contained simple organic compounds. This advanced the idea that Enceladus could harbor life.

This image of Enceladus shows the features known as “Tiger stripes”. They are the source of the vapor plumes that erupt from the surface. Credit: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA

The geysers aren’t the only evidence for a sub-surface ocean on Enceladus. The southern polar region has a smooth surface, unlike the rest of the moon which is marked with craters. Something must have smoothed that surface, since it is next to impossible that the south polar region would be free from impact craters.

In 2005, Cassini detected a warm region in the south, much warmer than could be caused by solar radiation. The only conclusion is that Enceladus has a source of internal heating. That internal heat would create enough geologic activity to erase impact craters.

So now, two conditions for the existence of life have been met: liquid water, and heat.

In 2005, data from Cassini showed that the so-called “Tiger Stripe” features on Enceladus’ south pole region are warm spots. Image:NASA/JPL/GSFC/SwRI/SSI

The source of the heat on Enceladus was the next question facing scientists. That question is far from settled, and there could be several sources of heat operating together. Among all the possible sources for the heat, two are most intriguing when it comes to the search for life: tidal heating, and radioactive heating.

Tidal heating is a result of rotational and orbital forces. In Enceladus’ case, these forces cause friction which is dissipated as heat. This heat keeps the sub-surface ocean in liquid form, but doesn’t prevent the surface from freezing solid.

Radioactive heating is caused by the decay of radioactive isotopes. If Enceladus started out as a rocky body, and if it contained enough short-lived isotopes, then an enormous amount of heat would be produced for several million years. That action would create a rocky core surrounded by ice.

Then, if enough long-lived radioactive isotopes were present, they would continue producing heat for a much longer period of time. However, radioactive heating isn’t enough on its own. There would have to be tidal heating also.

Gravity measurements by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft and Deep Space Network suggest that Saturn’s moon Enceladus, which has jets of water vapor and ice gushing from its south pole, also harbors a large interior ocean beneath an ice shell, as this illustration depicts.
Image Credit:
NASA/JPL-Caltech

More evidence for a large, sub-surface ocean came in 2014. Cassini and the Deep Space Network provided gravitometric measurements showing that the ocean is there. Those measurements showed that there is likely a regional, if not global, ocean some 10 km thick. Measurements also showed that the ocean is under an ice layer 30 to 40 km thick.

This close up image of Enceladus show the variability of its icy features. The dark spots were originally called “Dalmatian” terrain when first imaged in 2005. There exact nature remained a mystery until ten years later, when Cassini flybys showed that they are actually blocks of bedrock ice scattered along a ridge. The blocks range in size from tens to hundreds of meters. Image: NASA/JPL/Cal-Tech.

The discovery of a warm, salty ocean containing organic molecules is very intriguing, and has expanded our idea of what the habitable zone might be in our Solar System, and in others. Enceladus is much too distant from the Sun to rely on solar energy to sustain life. If moons can provide their own heat through tidal heating or radioactive heating, then the habitable zone in any solar system wouldn’t be determined by proximity to the star or stars at the centre.

Cassini’s mission is nearing its end, and it won’t fly by Enceladus again. It’s told us all it can about Enceladus. It’s up to future missions to expand our understanding of Enceladus.

Numerous missions have been talked about, including two that suggest flying through the plumes and sampling them. One proposal has a sample of the plumes being returned to Earth for study. Landing on Enceladus and somehow drilling through the ice remains a far-off idea better left to science fiction, at least for now.

Whether or not Enceladus can or does harbor life is a question that won’t be answered for a long time. In fact, not all scientists agree that there is a liquid ocean there at all. But whether it does or doesn’t harbor life, Cassini has allowed us to enjoy the tantalizing beauty of that distant object.

Enceladus. Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA

Enceladus’ Jets Selectively Power-Up Farther From Saturn

A crowning achievement of the Cassini mission to Saturn is the discovery of water vapor jets spraying out from Enceladus‘ southern pole. First witnessed by the spacecraft in 2005, these icy geysers propelled the little 515-kilometer-wide moon into the scientific spotlight and literally rewrote the mission’s objectives. After 22 flybys of Enceladus during its nearly twelve years in orbit around Saturn, Cassini has gathered enough data to determine that there is a global subsurface ocean of salty liquid water beneath Enceladus’ frozen crust—an ocean that gets sprayed into space from long “tiger stripe” fissures running across the moon’s southern pole.  Now, new research has shown that at least some of the vapor jets get a boost in activity when Enceladus is farther from Saturn.

The gravitational pull of Saturn changes the amount of particles spraying from Enceladus at different points in its orbit. When it's farther from Saturn (left) the plume contains more icy particles and thus appears brighter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Cornell/SSI.
The gravitational pull of Saturn changes the amount of particles spraying from Enceladus at different points in its orbit. When it’s farther from Saturn (left) the plume contains more icy particles and thus appears brighter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Cornell/SSI.

By measuring the changes in brightness of a distant background star as Enceladus’ plumes passed in front of it in March 2016, Cassini observed a significant increase in the amount of icy particles being ejected by one particular jet source.

"Baghdad Sulcus," one of Enceladus' plume sources, imaged by Cassini during a close pass in Nov. 2011. (NASA/JPL/SSI)
“Baghdad Sulcus,” one of Enceladus’ plume sources, imaged by Cassini during a close pass in Nov. 2011. (NASA/JPL/SSI)

Named “Baghdad 1,” the jet went from contributing 2% of the total vapor content of the entire plume area to 8% when Enceladus was at the farthest point in its slightly-eccentric orbit around Saturn. This small yet significant discovery indicates that, although Enceladus’ plumes are reacting to morphological changes to the moon’s crust due to tidal flexing, it’s select small-scale jets that are exhibiting the most variation in output (rather than a simple, general increase in outgassing across the full plumes.)

“How do the tiger stripe fissures respond to the push and pull of tidal forces as Enceladus goes around its orbit to explain this difference? We now have new clues!” said Candice Hansen, senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute and lead planner of the study. “It may be that the individual jet sources along the tiger stripes have a particular shape or width that responds most strongly to the tidal forcing each orbit to boost more ice grains at this orbital longitude.”

The confirmation that Enceladus shows an increase in overall plume output at farther points from Saturn was first made in 2013.

Whether this new finding means that the internal structure of the fissures is different than what scientists have suspected or some other process is at work either within Enceladus or in its orbit around Saturn still remains to be determined.

“Since we can only see what’s going on above the surface, at the end of the day, it’s up to the modelers to take this data and figure out what’s going on underground,” said Hansen.

Sources: Planetary Science Institute and NASA/JPL

Enceladus' water ice plumes were first observed by Cassini in 2005. (NASA/JPL/SSI)
Enceladus’ now-famous water ice plumes were first observed by Cassini in 2005. (NASA/JPL/SSI)

Cassini Watches Star Through Enceladus’ Plume

When the Cassini probe first saw the plumes coming from Saturn’s moon Enceladus, it was a surprise. When it dipped through the plumes, some questions about the basic nature of the phenomenon were answered. But there are still many more questions, and today Cassini has an opportunity to find some answers.

Cassini will be in a perfect position today to observe the light from Epsilon Orionis, the central star in Orion’s belt, as it passes through Enceladus’ plume. This type of observation is known as a stellar occultation, and it promises to provide new information about the composition and density of the plume. Cassini’s Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrograph (UVIS) will do the capturing, and once the information is relayed back to Earth, it will be analyzed for clues.

An artist's impression of the plumes coming from Enceladus. Image: NASA/JPL.
An artist’s impression of the plumes coming from Enceladus. Image: NASA/JPL.

We already know a few things about Enceladus’ plumes. First of all, Enceladus itself is any icy world, with subsurface oceans. The moon is locked in an orbital resonance, which creates its eccentric orbit. This eccentric orbit is responsible for heating the south polar oceans, which drives material through the ice sheets and creates its stunning plumes, in a process known as cryovolcanism. (Radioactive decay might also have something to do with heating.)

Cassini has been at Saturn’s system for 12 years, and has gradually painted a more detailed picture of Enceladus. Over time, we’ve learned that the plumes themselves are similar to what comets are made of. Cassini initially detected mostly water vapor, with traces of molecular nitrogen, methane, and carbon dioxide. Later, the presence of the hydrocarbons propane, formaldehyde, and acetylene was confirmed.

This is all very interesting, but why would anyone other than chemistry geeks care? Because the universe, including our Solar System, is largely a cold, sterile place. And the plumes coming from Enceladus indicate the presence of water, potentially warm, salty, water at that. And warm water might mean life, or the potential for life.

Cassini has previously observed two other stellar occultations. But with today’s observation, we stand to learn even more about the plumes of Enceladus. We’ll not only learn more about their density and composition, but since is the third such occultation to be observed, we’ll learn something about the plume’s behaviour over time. We probably won’t learn anything definitive about Enceladus’ life-supporting potential, but we will almost certainly find another piece of the puzzle, and fill in a blank spot in our knowledge.

And that’s what science is all about.

Retro Travel Posters Show Us The Future

Visitors to Jupiter view the Jovian auroras from balloons. Image: NASA/JPL.

One of the greatest things about being a space enthusiast is all of the discoveries that come out on an almost daily basis. One of the saddest things about being a space enthusiast is all of the discoveries and destinations that are so close, just beyond the horizon of our lifespan.

Will we colonize other planets? Sure, but most of us living will be gone by then. Will we spend time in glorious, gleaming space habitats? Obviously, but we’ll just be epitaphs by then. Sentient, alien species that gift us faster-than-light travel and other wonders? Maybe, but not before my bucket list has its final item checked off.

Citizen space travel? Hmmmm, tantalizingly within reach.

But now, new retro style posters from NASA, designed by the team at Invisible Creature, are making us feel nostalgic about things that haven’t even happened yet, and are helping us leave behind gloomy thoughts of being born at the wrong time.

The Grand Tour. Image: NASA/JPL
The Grand Tour. Image: NASA/JPL

The Grand Tour celebrates a time when our probes toured the planets, using gravity assist to propel them on their missions.

“Grandpa, do you remember the Grand Tour, when spacecraft used gravity assist to visit other worlds?”

“I sure do. Gravity assist. Those were the days. Swooping so close to Jupiter, you could feel the radiation killing your hair follicles. Only to be sling-shotted on to the next planet.”

“But why didn’t you just use a quantum drive to bend space time and appear at your destination?”

“Quantum drives! Those things ain’t natural. And neither is bending space-time. Give me a good old-fashioned chemical rocket any time.”

“Oh Grandpa.”

Visit Historic Mars. Image: NASA/JPL
Visit Historic Mars. Image: NASA/JPL

Visit the Historic Sites of Mars recalls a time when space pioneers colonized and terraformed Mars.

“Grandpa, what was Mars like in the Early Days?”

“You mean before it was terraformed? Very tough times.”

“Because conditions were so difficult? And food was hard to grow?”

“No. Because of the protesters.”

“Protesters? On Mars?”

“Yup. Every time we found a good spot for a Bacterial Production Facility (BPF), it seemed like there was an expired old rover in the way. The protesters didn’t think we should move ’em. Part of our heritage.”

“So what did you do Grandpa?”

“We created a network of computers that everybody would stare at all day. After that, nobody noticed what we did anymore.”

“Oh Grandpa.”

Visit Beautiful Southern Enceladus. Image: NASA/JPL
Visit Beautiful Southern Enceladus. Image: NASA/JPL

Visit Beautiful Southern Enceladus invites vacationers to visit Saturn’s sixth largest moon to view the ice geysers there.

“Grandpa, did you ever visit Enceladus?”

“I sure did. A beautiful, haunting place.”

“Was it scary? With all of the ice geysers erupting unpredictably?”

“On no. I always knew when one was going to erupt.”

“What? How did you know?”

“My arthritis would flare up.”

“Oh Grandpa.”

Other Posters

NASA has a growing collection of other posters. You can see them here.

SpaceX has their own posters, which you can see here. They also have cool t-shirts with the same designs.

Enceladus, the Jet-Powered Water World

I don’t think I’ll ever tire of seeing pictures of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, with those captivating water jets and plumes at its South Pole. And this new images from the Cassini mission is just stunning – and intriguing. Carolyn Porco, the Cassini imaging team lead described the image on Twitter: “Be moved by crescent Enceladus with its ghostly geysers floating above Saturn’s glowing rings.”

There are over 100 geyser jets of varying sizes near Enceladus’s south pole spraying water vapor, icy particles, and organic compounds out into space. Enticingly, this distant and small moon (313 miles or 504 kilometers across) has a global subsurface ocean of liquid water, as tidal forces from Enceladus’ orbital relationship to Saturn and another moon, Dione heats the interior.

Liquid water and the observation of organic chemicals in the plumes of Enceladus make this moon of high astrobiological interest to scientists. In a 2014 paper by Porco and astrobiologist Chris McKay, the due wrote that Enceladus’ “steady plume derives from a subsurface liquid water reservoir that contains organic carbon, biologically available nitrogen, redox energy sources, and inorganic salts. … No other world has such well-studied indications of habitable conditions.”

While the rings of Saturn are also beautiful, they are they are frozen and geologically dead. “The small ring particles are too tiny to retain internal heat and have no way to get warm,” the Cassini imaging team explained on the CICLOPS website.

This image was taken in July of 2015, and was not part of two close flybys of Enceladus in October of this year. Project scientist Linda Spilker hinted there might be some new discoveries from those flybys (see images here and here), as she said, “Cassini’s stunning images are providing us a quick look at Enceladus from this ultra-close flyby, but some of the most exciting science is yet to come.”

This beautiful view of Enceladus and Saturn’s rings looks toward the unilluminated side of the rings from about 0.3 degrees below the ring plane. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on July 29, 2015.

The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 630,000 miles (1.0 million kilometers) from Enceladus and at a Sun-Enceladus-spacecraft, or phase angle of 155 degrees. Image scale is 4 miles (6 kilometers) per pixel.

See a larger version of this image here from NASA.

Images from Enceladus ‘Plume Dive’ Courtesy of Cassini

Oh, to hitch a ride aboard NASA’s Cassini spacecraft this week. The Saturn orbiting sentinel recently completed an amazing series of passes near the enigmatic ice-covered moon Enceladus, including a daredevil dive only 49 km (31 miles) above the southern pole of the moon and through an ice geyser. Images of the dramatic flyby were released by the Cassini team earlier this morning, revealing the moon in stunning detail. 

Image credit
Enceladus vs the rings of Saturn. Image credit: NASA/JPL Caltech/Space Science Institute

“Cassini’s stunning images are providing us a quick look at Enceladus from this ultra-close flyby, but some of the most exciting science is yet to come,” says NASA mission project scientist Linda Spilker in today’s NASA/JPL press release.

Launched in 1997 from Cape Canaveral Florida in a dramatic night shot, Cassini arrived at the Saturnian system in 2004, and has delivered on some amazing planetary science ever since.

Discovered in 1789 by William Herschel, we got our very first views of Enceladus via the Voyager 1 spacecraft at 202,000 kilometers distant in 1980. Cassini has flown by the moon 21 times over the past decade, and ice geysers were seen sprouting from the surface of the moon by Cassini on subsequent flybys. one final flyby of Enceladus is planned for this coming December.

Image credit:
Ice geysers ahead, in this Oct 28th view from Cassini. Image credit: NASA/JPL Caltech/Space Science Institute

 

Mission planners are getting more daring with the spacecraft as its mission nears completion in 2017. The idea of reaching out and ‘tasting’ an icy plume emanating from Enceladus has been an enticing one,  though a fast-moving good-sized ice pellet could spell disaster for the spacecraft.

NASA successfully established contact with the spacecraft on Wednesday night October 28th after the closest approach for the flyby at 11:22 AM EDT/ 15:22 UT (Universal Time) earlier in the day. Cassini is reported to be in good health, and we should see further images along with science data returns in the weeks to come.

Image credit:
A closeup view of the icy terrain of the southern polar region of Enceladus from this weeks’ flyby. Image credit: NASA/JPL Caltech/Space Science Institute

A second, more distant flyby of Enceladus was completed by Cassini earlier this month as it passed 1,142 miles (1,839 kilometers) from the northern pole of Enceladus on October 14th, 2015 on its E-20 flyby.

But beyond just pretty post-cards from the outer solar system, Cassini’s successive passes by the mysterious moon will characterize just what might be occurring far down below.

Why Enceladus? Well, ever since ice geysers were spotted gushing from the fractured surface of the moon, it’s been on NASA’s short list of possible abodes for life in the solar system. Other contenders include Mars, Jupiter’s moon Europa, and Saturn’s giant moon, Titan. If the story of life on Earth is any indication, you need a place where an abundant level of chemical processes are occurring, and a subsurface ocean under the crust of Enceladus heated by tidal flexing may just fit the bill.

We’ll be adding further images and info to this post as more data comes in over the weekend, plus Cassini mission highlights, a look at the mission and final objectives and the last days of Cassini and more…

Stay tuned!

The end of Cassini in 2017 as it burns up in the atmosphere of Saturn will be a bittersweet affair, as our outer solar system eyes around the ringed planet fall silent. Cassini represents the most distant spacecraft inserted into orbit around a planet, and ESA’s Huygens lander on Titan marked the most remote landing on another world as well. Will we one day see a Titan Blimp or Ocean Explorer, or perhaps a dedicated life-finding mission to Enceladus?  Final mission objectives for NASA’s Cassini spacecraft include a final flyby of Saturn’s large moon Titan, which will set the course for its final death plunge into the atmosphere of Saturn on September 15th, 2017.

A high-resolution capture of Enceladus released this weekend by the Cassini team. The spacecraft was about 60,000 miles (96,000 kilometers) out when this image was taken. You can see the stark contract of the moon's fractured cantlope terrain, versus craters in the opposite hemisphere imaged criedt: NASA/JPL-CalTech/Space Science Institute
A high-resolution capture of Enceladus released this weekend by the Cassini team. The spacecraft was about 60,000 miles (96,000 kilometers) out when this image was taken. You can see the stark contract of the moon’s fractured cantaloupe terrain, versus craters in the opposite hemisphere imaged. Credit: NASA/JPL-CalTech/Space Science Institute

Want to see Enceladus for yourself? The moon orbits Saturn once every 1.4 days, reaching a maximum elongation of 13″ from the ring tips of Saturn and a maximum brightness of magnitude +11.7. Enceladus is one of six major moons of Saturn visible in a backyard telescope, and one of 62 moons of the ring planet known overall. The other five moons within reach of an amateur telescope are: Titan, Mimas, Dione, Rhea, and Tethys, and the fainter moon Hyperion shining at magnitude +15 might just be within reach of skill observers with large light bucket instruments.

Enjoy the amazing views of Enceladus, courtesy of Cassini!

Cassini’s Close Flyby of Enceladus Yields Surprising, Perplexing Imagery

If you thought Saturn’s moon Enceladus couldn’t get any more bizzare — with its magnificent plumes, crazy tiger-stripe-like fissures and global subsurface salty ocean — think again. New images of this moon’s northern region just in from the Cassini spacecraft show surprising and perplexing features: a tortured surface where craters look like they are melting, and fractures that cut straight across the landscape.

“We’ve been puzzling over Enceladus’ south pole for so long, time to be puzzled by the north pole!” tweeted NASA engineer Sarah Milkovich, who formerly worked on the Cassini mission.

While the Cassini mission has been at the Saturn system since 2004 and flown by this moon several times, this is the spacecraft’s first close-up look at the north polar region of Enceladus. On October 14, 2015 the spacecraft passed at an altitude of just 1,839 kilometers (1,142 miles) above the moon’s surface.

See more imagery below:

Craters and a possible straight fracture line mar the surface of Enceladus in this raw image from the Cassini spacecraft taken on October 14, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.
Craters and a possible straight fracture line mar the surface of Enceladus in this raw image from the Cassini spacecraft taken on October 14, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

The reason Cassini hasn’t been able to see the northern terrain of Enceladus previously is that it was concealed by the darkness of winter. It’s now summer in the high northern latitudes, and scientists have been anxious to take a look at this previously unseen region. Gauging by the posts of “Wow!” and “Enceladus what are you doing??” by scientists on social media, the Cassini team is as excited and perplexed by these images as the rest of us.

“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. “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.”

Craters and fractures dot the landscape of the northern region of Enceladus in this raw image from the Cassini spacecraft taken on October 14, 2015.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.
Craters and fractures dot the landscape of the northern region of Enceladus in this raw image from the Cassini spacecraft taken on October 14, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

While these raw images just arrived this morning, already image editing enthusiasts have dived into the data to create composite and color images. Here are two from UT writer Jason Major and image contributor Kevin Gill:

A beautiful view of the night side of a crescent Enceladus, lovingly lit by Saturnshine. This was captured by the Cassini spacecraft during a close pass on Oct. 14, 2015. The 6.5-mile-wide Bahman cater is visible near the center. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute, image editing by Jason Major.
A beautiful view of the night side of a crescent Enceladus, lovingly lit by Saturnshine. This was captured by the Cassini spacecraft during a close pass on Oct. 14, 2015. The 6.5-mile-wide Bahman cater is visible near the center. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute, image editing by Jason Major.
Saturn's icy moon Enceladus on October 14th, 2015 during Cassini's latest encounter. Assembled from uncalibrated images using infrared, green, and ultraviolet light. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-CalTech/ISS/Kevin M. Gill
Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus on October 14th, 2015 during Cassini’s latest encounter. Assembled from uncalibrated images using infrared, green, and ultraviolet light. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-CalTech/ISS/Kevin M. Gill

In an email, Cassini imaging team leader Carolyn Porco explained the flyby: “Our cameras were active during most of this encounter, allowing the imaging team and other remote-sensing instrument teams to observe the Saturn-opposing side of Enceladus on the inbound leg of the encounter, and a narrow, sunlit crescent outbound.”

From previous imagery and study of this moon, it has been suggested that the fractured and wrinkled terrain on Enceladus could be the scars of a shift in the moon’s spin rate. The moon has likely undergone multiple episodes of geologic activity spanning a considerable portion of its lifetime.

A complex region of craters and fractures near the north polar region on Saturn's  moon Enceladus. Image from Cassini spacecraft taken on October 14, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
A complex region of craters and fractures near the north polar region on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Image from Cassini spacecraft taken on October 14, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

While these images are incredible, get ready for even more. An even closer flyby of Enceladus is scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 28, during which Cassini will come dizzyingly close to the icy moon, passing just 49 kilometers (30 miles) above the moon’s south polar region. NASA says that 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.

Then another flyby — Cassini’s final scheduled close flyby of Enceladus — on Dec. 19 will examine how much heat is coming from the moon’s interior from an altitude of 4,999 kilometers (3,106 miles).

Enceladus hovers over Saturn's rings in this raw image from the Cassini spacecraft taken on October 14, 2015.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.
Enceladus hovers over Saturn’s rings in this raw image from the Cassini spacecraft taken on October 14, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

An interesting side note is that the Cassini mission launched 18 years ago today (October 15, 1997).

Again stay tuned for more, and you can see all of Cassini’s raw image here, and find out more details of the upcoming flybys at this CICLOPS page.

Saturn Smackdown! Icy Moons Burned By Radiation And Ions

If you hang out in Saturn’s intense magnetic environment for a while, it’s going to leave a mark. That’s one conclusion from scientists who proudly released new maps yesterday (Dec. 9) of the planet’s icy moons, showing dark blotches on the surfaces of Dione, Rhea, and Tethys.

Cassini has been at Saturn for more than 10 years, and compared to the flyby Voyager mission has given us a greater understanding of what these moons contain. You can see the difference clearly in the maps below; look under the jump and swipe back and forth to see the difference.

So what do these maps yield? Radiation-burned hemispheres in Dione, Tethys, and Rhea. Icy deposits building up on Enceladus from eruptions, which you can see in yellow and magenta, as well as fractures in blue. Dust from Saturn’s E-ring covering several of the moons, except for Iapetus and Tethys.

"Tiger stripes" -- sources of ice spewing -- in this image of Saturn's Enceladus taken by the Cassini spacecraft in 2009. Credit: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA
“Tiger stripes” — sources of ice spewing — in this image of Saturn’s Enceladus taken by the Cassini spacecraft in 2009. Credit: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA

Could these be used by future explorers seeking life in some of these moons? In the meantime, enjoy the difference between Voyager’s view in the 1980s, and Cassini’s view for the past decade, in the comparison maps below.

A caution about the maps: they are a little more enhanced than human vision, showing some features in infrared and ultraviolet wavelengths. “Differences in color across the moons’ surfaces that are subtle in natural-color views become much easier to study in these enhanced colors,” NASA stated.

Dione

Enceladus

Iapetus

Mimas

Rhea

Tethys

100,000 Ice Blocks Mapped Out at the South Pole … of Enceladus

Ever since the Cassini space probe conducted its first flyby of Enceladus in 2005, the strange Saturnian moon has provided us with a treasure trove of images and scientific wonders. These include the jets of icy water vapor periodically bursting from its south pole, the possibility of an interior ocean – which may even harbor life – and the strange green-blue stripes located around the south pole.

Continue reading “100,000 Ice Blocks Mapped Out at the South Pole … of Enceladus”

Gallery: 5 Exotic Places NASA’s Next-Generation Rocket Could Help Explore

TORONTO, CANADA – Could NASA’s new rocket bring a probe to sample the geysers of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, or ferry human explorers to the surface of Mars? Representatives of contractor Boeing think so.

They’ve put together some ideas for sending their Space Launch System to these far-flung destinations, which they presented at the International Astronautical Congress today (Oct. 1).

Bear in mind that the SLS hasn’t yet flown — it’s slated for 2018 if funding lasts and the schedule holds — and the destinations below are just in the conceptual stage. The gallery below summarizes some of the destinations SLS could visit. For more information, check out this brochure by Boeing.

Enceladus

Artist's conception of the Cassini spacecraft flying amid geysers on Enceladus, a moon of Saturn. Credit: Karl Kofoed / NASA
Artist’s conception of the Cassini spacecraft flying amid geysers on Enceladus, a moon of Saturn. Credit: Karl Kofoed / NASA

The icy moon of Saturn is known as a hotspot for geysers; earlier this year, scientists found 101 gushers using data from the prolific Cassini probe. Using the SLS could bring a satellite there in four years, as opposed to about seven with rockets on the market today, according to Boeing. It also could carry a heavier spacecraft.

Europa

Artist's conception of Europa's surface, backdropped by planet Jupiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s conception of Europa’s surface, backdropped by planet Jupiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Europa is known to have a subterranean ocean, and it also is capable of spewing water plumes — as researchers using the Hubble Space Telescope discovered earlier this year. The SLS could get to Europa a lot faster than a launch with an Atlas, according to Boeing — it would only take two years to fly there directly as opposed to more than six years with the Atlas, which would need to fly by Venus first to pick up some speed.

Trojan asteroids

Artist's diagram of Jupiter and some Trojan asteroids nearby the gas giant. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s diagram of Jupiter and some Trojan asteroids nearby the gas giant. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Trailing before and after Jupiter are more than a million asteroids that are called Trojans. This means any probe in the area would have no lack of targets to study, providing it had enough fuel on board. A mission profile from Boeing suggests the SLS could bring a spacecraft out there that could swing by a target at least half a dozen times.

Mars

Artist's impression of astronauts exploring Mars. Credit: NASA/Pat Rawlings, SAIC
Artist’s impression of astronauts exploring Mars. Credit: NASA/Pat Rawlings, SAIC

One of the largest challenges of getting to Mars is figuring out how to send all the life-support equipment and food that humans require — on top of the humans themselves! Since SLS is a heavy-lift rocket, Boeing is trying to position its rocket as the ideal one to get humans to Mars. But it remains to be seen what concept works best to get people out there.

The Moon

Artist's impression of astronauts on the moon. This image was used to illustrate a landing concept of NASA's now defunct Constellation program. Credit: John Frassanito and Associates / NASA
Artist’s impression of astronauts on the moon. This image was used to illustrate a landing concept of NASA’s now defunct Constellation program. Credit: John Frassanito and Associates / NASA

Boeing has an idea to bring a lander down to the Moon that could then lift off multiple times in search of other destinations. Such a concept would require a hefty amount of fuel and equipment. If it works, Boeing says the SLS could assist with plans for lunar mining and other exploration ideas.