NASA’s Cassini orbiter is sweeping past Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus today to photograph geyser-like eruptions from the Southern Hemisphere. The hope is to find signs of the building blocks of life: NASA has pegged Enceladus as one of the most likely places in the Solar System (along with Mars and another of Saturn’s moons, Titan) to be able to support extraterrestrial life.
On a flyby earlier this year, the Cassini spacecraft detected organic chemicals like methane and propane in the contents spewing out of the moon’s interior. Such compounds have also been found in comets’ tails and just recently on Titan.
According to a NASA blog, Cassini will pass through the plumes of frozen water vapor that the moon jets out into space. Researchers hope to learn more about these ejected, frigid particulates that end up replenishing one of Saturn’s rings, dubbed the E ring.
The spacecraft will come closest to Enceladus at about 6:30 p.m. EST when it flies by at an altitude of about 30 miles (48 kilometers) above Enceladus’ cratered and wrinkled surface. NASA researchers think the new images, which should be the most detailed yet, will reveal more about the workings of these geysers and if liquid water is near the moon’s surface. Images and data from the flyby will be sent back to Earth at 11:30 p.m. EST, and will be posted on NASA’s Cassini page as soon as they become available during the week. Some “raw” images will come online early tomorrow morning, according to Carolina Martinez, spokesperson at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
The geysers themselves blast out of dark fissures on the moon called “tiger stripes” due to their appearance. Cassini has previously shown that these tracks can get up to about -135 degrees Fahrenheit (-93 degrees Celsius) near their centers, a good 200 degrees F (93 degrees C) warmer than the rest of Enceladus.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL