Cassini probe bid goodbye to icy Enceladus on December 19th, after completing the last E-22 flyby of Saturn’s tiny moon. The space probe is still sending data to the team back home. Once the scientific team completes the combing process of this data, we might find the answer to a pressing question: does icy Enceladus harbor microbial life?
Cassini has spent eleven years orbiting Saturn. The mission of the space probe is set to continue until September 2017 before it will retreat in glory. Observing icy Enceladus has been a large part of Cassini’s mission. In 2005, the 320-mile wide icy moon revealed a secret: intense geologic activity. It was then that Cassini found plumes of water vapor as well as ice gushing through fissures on the moon’s south pole region.
The discovery had prompted the scientific team behind the mission to direct Cassini towards the icy moon 22 times overall. A trove of data has been gathered through the repeated flybys that Cassini performed. All have completed puzzle pieces that revealed spectacular information on the tiny world.
With the last flyby, Cassini probe bid goodbye to icy Enceladus on December 19th. Before a bitter-sweet goodbye, Cassini captured stunning images of Saturn’s icy moon from 3,106 miles distance. The fractures and surface of Enceladus were captured as the space probe passed by at 21,000 mph.
The last flyby had a very specific mission: collecting data on heat distribution on the surface of icy Enceladus’ south pole. It is here that the water vapor plumes and jets of water ice were discovered in 2005, gushing from the surface fractures. Also thanks to these discoveries, it is now known that underneath the icy surface of Saturn’s moon a global ocean of liquid water lies undisturbed.
The global ocean (though to be only regional before Cassini collected data in the south pole region) supplies the icy water jets with organic compounds. Considering the global ocean is in liquid state, the heat sources are a big question. With liquid water and heat sources, icy Enceladus is a candidate for habitable moons. One question that remains unanswered for now is whether the global ocean of liquid water underneath the surface of icy Enceladus harbors life. Future missions may bring an answer.
For now, the team of the European Space Agency, the Italian Space Agency and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory team are biding goodbye to the close views of the icy moon.
Photo Credits: scitechdaily.com
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