Last Looks at a Spooky Moon of Saturn

Cassini-Huygens, NASA’s grand orbiter that has been examining Saturn for 11 years, is entering the last stages of its incredible journey. Last month, it sent back haunting photos of pockmarked Dione, one of Saturn’s moons, of which there are at least 62 — there may be more, and only 53 have names.

In October, Cassini will do a flyby of Enceladus, one of the most fascinating celestial bodies in our solar system, because it is ice covered and emits mysterious plumes or sprays. Theory holds that warmer water below the icy surface of Enceladus works its way through cracks in the surface rock down toward the moon’s core, heats up and then shoots up through cracks in the ice to create the plumes. Icy moons like Enceladus are thought to be possible places where life could form below the surface, where it is warmer.

Enceladus moon

Credit: Cassini Imaging Team/NASA
Saturn’s moon Enceladus spews what is thought to be water vapor from cracks in its icy surface. The photo was taken by Cassini Huygens last year and offers hints of possible life below the moon’s surface. 

On Oct. 14, Cassini will do a flyby of Enceladus’ north pole that will allow it to photograph the plumes from a unique angle only 1,142 miles above the surface. The angle will offer more information about the jets.

Cassini will fly through a known plume and collect information about its substance on Oct. 28. The spacecraft will be only 30 miles from the surface during the pass. It will photograph the Earth as it passes behind Enceladus, as well as the sun.

Finally, Cassini will fly past the moon’s south pole on Dec. 19 at an altitude of 3,106 miles. There will be three flybys of Enceladus in 2016, but all will be from relatively long distances of 14,000–55,000 miles. The last pass will be March 29, 2017, at an altitude of 58,000 miles.

Two years from now, on Sept. 15, Cassini will run out of thruster fuel and plunge into the atmosphere of Saturn shortly after 22 tricky orbits through the planet’s ring of rocks.

To your health and wealth,

Stephen Petranek
for The Daily Reckoning

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