According to a NASA report, Cassini is set to take the deepest plunge into Enceladus’ plumes this week. The probe will get at its closest point to the surface of the Saturn’s moon on Wednesday, when it is slated to sweep 31 miles above its surface.
During the daring flyby, the probe will collect water samples from spewing jets at the moon’s South Pole. Enceladus is of particular interest because it is one of the few worlds which is geologically active and has a global ocean under its icy crust.
On Monday, Curt Niebur of the Cassini mission told reporters that the team was ready to move the probe farther down into the ‘magnificent plume’ emerging from teh South Pole.
“And we will collect the best sample ever from an ocean beyond earth,”
The spacecraft will also look for molecular hydrogen during its next descent. If it does find the gas, this means that the sea floor has hot vents. On our planet, hot vents draw water, heat it and eject it back upwards after enriching it with minerals. On Enceladus is still unclear whether these vents exist.
Linda Spilker, a JPL scientist involved in the mission, explained that the levels of hydrogen would reveal how strong the hydrothermal activity is on Enceladus. From that point on, scientists can calculate how much energy is released in the process.
Cassini is set to take the deepest plunge into Enceladus’ plumes on Wednesday at 10:00 Pacific Time. Yet, the findings will be made public in several weeks. Spilker said that the scientists will have a quick look at the data on particles found in the close encounter about a week after the flyby. In the next week, scientists will perform a more accurate analysis. The data may help tehm better understand the mysterious ocean on Enceladus.
Cassini mission to Saturn started in July 2004 and is not close to its end. During that time, the tiny probe performed several flybys of the gas giant and its moons. The data gathered in the meantime was used to build detailed maps of the worlds and analyze their make-up.
This Wednesday’s dive will be the closest to date and the last of its kind for Cassini. By the end of the year, the spacecraft is expected to perform another dive into the moon’s atmosphere but at a 3,106 mile altitude.
So, this week’s flyby is the last opportunity to gather key data on the moon’s atmospheric make-up.
Image Source: Wikipedia
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