Yesterday at 12:49 PM, Cassini entered the last Enceladus flyby in a last mission to the Saturnian moon. Before settling into retirement, Cassini is gathering one missing puzzle piece of the Enceladus habitability prospects: internal heat.
Conditions are ripe, say the scientists behind the mission. Cassini’s flyby has the vehicle approaching at 3,106 miles above the surface of the Saturnian moon. As Saturn is now experiencing a long winter, its icy moon, Enceladus is left to be studied under ideal conditions.
As Cassini completes this mission, it will bid goodbye to the icy moon and observe it from afar as it shifts focus towards the outer rings of Saturn. By 2017 when Cassini will probably crash into the planet, it will travel through the planet’s outer and inner rings, collecting data.
After almost two decades, Cassini’s missions have brought a trove of scientific data on Venus, Saturn, Jupiter as well as an asteroid. Thanks to Cassini, we now know of the moon system surrounding Saturn, we have some validation of the theory of relativity and a lot to look back on.
As Cassini entered the last Enceladus flyby we come to conclude one chapter of space exploration in our solar system. Enceladus, the icy moon of Saturn is of particular interest. Underneath its surface and fragmented crust, an ocean lies undisturbed. Earlier, Cassini collected samples of the water useful in determining whether it is habitable. One last puzzle piece is missing: the internal heat of the icy moon.
The data needed to determine the internal heat of the moon is best collected from the south pole of Enceladus. Here, ocean spray is thrust out into space with a speed of 800 miles per hour, feeding directly into Saturn’s E ring. Cassini’s mission is to determine how much heat is also released from the ocean lying beneath the surface of the icy moon. This last mission is the 22nd time it closes in on Enceladus.
In order to understand how habitable the Saturnian moon is, we need to know there’s water on the icy moon. Right beneath the surface there lies a global ocean from which ocean spray surges at the south pole. Then we need to know there’s heat. One of the scientists behind the mission stated:
“We now have evidence of nanosilica grains that could only be generated in very hot water, leading us to discuss hydrothermal events”.
The south pole of Enceladus is the best spot to mark this inquiry. Currently, it comprises the best conditions for an analysis to be conducted. As Saturn is heading into a long winter, the Saturnian moon Enceladus is enveloped in darkness. As the Sun’s heat doesn’t reach the surface of the icy moon anymore, internal heat is easier to detect. And the crust of the icy moon is particularly thin at the south pole. Perhaps that is also a sign of internal heat prompting a warmer region to the south of the Saturnian moon. CIRS will have done its fair share during Cassini’s last Enceladus flyby.
Photo Credits: Wikimedia
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