Cassini prepares for Enceladus ‘plume dive’

Cassini's next mission manoeuvre aims to find out more about the geological activity occurring on Saturn's icy moon Enceladus, revealing new data that will help determine the prospects for supporting life in its global ocean.

Cassini takes a last look at Saturn's moon Titan on 21 April, before manoeuvring to begin its series of ring dives on 26 April.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Saturn’s moon Enceladus as taken by Cassini.

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Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute


This video from NASA explains the purpose behind Cassini’s plume flyby what the team hopes to achieve from it. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

On 28 October, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft will fly through the moon’s icy spray to collect data on the subsurface ocean below.

Previous studies by Cassini of Saturn’s moon revealed a hive of geological activity, including a plume of ice, water vapour and organic molecules spraying from its south polar region.

Cassini also uncovered a global ocean and the possibility of hydrothermal activity, meaning Enceladus could have the necessary ingredients to support life.

The flyby on 28 October will be the spacecraft’s deepest dive through Enceladus’s plume so far and is expected to reveal new data on the active spray and the ocean below.

Scientists say the detection of molecular hydrogen by Cassini would have major implications for the moon’s ability to support life.

The lower Cassini gets to the plume, the better chance it has of collecting heavier molecules, including organics.

The spacecraft will aim to fly just 48 kilometres above Enceladus’s south pole.

Data collected during the flyby could also reveal information as to the makeup of the plume: whether it is composed of individual jets, icy curtain eruptions or both.

This data will also help scientists calculate how long Enceladus might have been active.

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Cassini launched in 1997 and entered Saturn’s orbit in 2004, beginning its mission to study the planet, its rings, magnetic field and its moons.