A crowning achievement of the Cassini mission to Saturn is the discovery of water vapor jets spraying out from Enceladus‘ southern pole. First witnessed by the spacecraft in 2005, these icy geysers propelled the little 320-mile-wide moon into the scientific spotlight. After 22 flybys of Enceladus during its nearly twelve years in orbit around Saturn, Cassini has gathered enough data to determine that there is a global subsurface ocean of salty liquid water beneath Enceladus’ frozen crust—an ocean that gets literally sprayed into space. Now, new findings from Cassini and researchers at the Planetary Science Institute—with a little help from a star called Epsilon Orionis—has shown that at least some of the vapor jets get a boost in activity when Enceladus is farther from Saturn.
After nearly eleven and a half years in orbit around Saturn the Cassini spacecraft has made its last-ever targeted flyby of Enceladus, the 320-mile-wide moon of Saturn that has intrigued scientists and the public alike with its active water ice geysers for more than a decade since their discovery. On Saturday Dec. 19, 2015, Cassini performed its E-22 flyby of Enceladus, coming within 3,106 miles (5,000 km) of the moon’s fractured and frozen surface as it sped by at over 21,000 mph. It captured some incredible images along the way, including the one above showing a crescent-lit Enceladus from its night side silhouetted against the hazy upper atmosphere of Saturn, 150,000 miles beyond.
Take a look through some more raw images from the E-22 flyby below.
On Wed. Oct. 28 Cassini performed its lowest-altitude dive yet through the icy plumes of Enceladus, coming just 30 miles from the moon’s surface — that’s only about 6 times higher than a commercial airliner at cruising altitude. But, traveling over 19,000 mph relative to Enceladus (which is 38 times faster than a jet plane!) the pass was over in just a few seconds. Still, Cassini managed to capture some images before, during, and after closest approach — and they’ve arrived on Earth today.
Here are some of the raw images from the E-21 flyby. These have not been validated or made into official releases by NASA or the Cassini imaging team yet, but they are a nice teaser of what we might expect once they are. (And, of course, the science performed during the flyby has yet to be revealed.) So pics only for now!
On Wednesday, Oct. 14 2015, Cassini performed its scheduled “E-20” close pass of Enceladus, a 320-mile-wide moon of Saturn that is now famous for the organics-laden ice geysers that fire from cracks in its southern crust. E-20 is the first of a series of three flybys to be performed before the end of 2015, specifically timed to give the spacecraft a good view of Enceladus’ north polar region now that Saturn is moving into its summer season.
The raw image data from E-20 has just arrived on Earth today (which, by the way, is the 18th anniversary of Cassini’s launch!) and I particularly liked the one above. Crescent-lit by the Sun, Enceladus’ night side is seen bathed in the dimmer glow of reflected light off Saturn and its rings. Dead-center is the 6.5-mile-wide crater Bahman, surrounded by a wrinkly field of cracks and troughs in the moon’s highly-reflective icy surface.
Just a week after Curiosity celebrated its first Martian year in Gale Crater and we have yet another milestone anniversary in Solar System exploration: as of 10:48 p.m. EDT tonight Cassini will have been in orbit around Saturn for a full decade!
“There are times when human language is inadequate, when emotions choke the mind, when the magnitude of events cannot properly be conveyed by the same syllables we use to navigate everyday life. The evening of June 30, 2004 was such a time.”
– Carolyn Porco, Cassini Imaging Team Leader, CICLOPS “Captain’s Log” on June 30, 2014
That’s ten years and over 2 billion miles of discoveries and explorations of our Solar System’s most majestic planet and its incredibly varied family of moons. Over the course of its primary mission and three extended missions, we have been able to get a close-up look at Saturn and its moons like never before, witnessing first-hand the changes that occur as their seasons change. What’s been discovered by the Cassini mission about Saturn has offered invaluable insight into the evolution of our entire Solar System, as well as planets that could be found elsewhere in our galaxy.
“Having a healthy, long-lived spacecraft at Saturn has afforded us a precious opportunity,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “By having a decade there with Cassini, we have been privileged to witness never-before-seen events that are changing our understanding of how planetary systems form and what conditions might lead to habitats for life.”
Launched on October 15, 1997, the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft established orbit around Saturn on June 30, 2004 (July 1, UTC).
If you’ve been a faithful reader of Lights in the Dark over the past five years you know that I just love Cassini (and you probably do too!) In orbit around Saturn since 2004, Cassini has taken us on an intimate tour of the Saturnian system for a decade now, revealing the incredible beauty of the ringed planet and its family of moons like no spacecraft ever has before. Thanks to Cassini and the Huygens probe, we have seen the surface of Titan for the first time, witnessed the jets of Enceladus, discovered many previously-unknown moons (and moonlets) and basically learned more about Saturn over the past ten years than since Galileo first pointed his telescope at it.
Although nearing the end of its life span, Cassini still has a few good years left and scientists are taking full advantage of its remaining time around Saturn to learn as much as they can before the spacecraft makes its final dive into the planet’s atmosphere in 2017.* The video above shows what awaits Cassini in the years ahead — some of its best discoveries may be yet to come. Check it out!
*The exact plan for the end of Cassini’s mission has not yet been finalized.