The name “Cassini” is a bit of a give away that this mission is a cooperative project with NASA and Italy’s space agency. It is actually called the “Cassini-Huygens” mission, involving also the European Space Agency (ESA). And, no it has nothing to do with high space fashion for Hollywood stars in honor of ol’ Oleg. This Cassini is a photographer of the stars, or, I should say, moons, the moons of Saturn to be exact. The mission is managed from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for NASA in California although the images for the mission are handled at the Space Science Institute in Colorado. The Cassini spacecraft has returned some fantastic images from Saturn’s moon “Enceladus” this past October. Although this cold, icy moon may look like a dead globe of dust, it actually has an active southern polar region.
The probe passed as close as 30 miles from the moon’s South Pole and transmitted data for several days. What sort of data? Most of it will be geological analysis of gas and dust. Cassini captured samples from a plume of gas and ice particles when it made its close fly by. The above image from Cassini was taken when sunlight was at an angle so as to make some of the spray from the South Pole geysers visible. Scientists know that there is an ocean beneath the frozen surface of Enceladus and these samples should help to determine if there is any hydrothermal activity going on down below.
And, if there is an active ocean on Enceladus, why would that matter? Because Saturn’s moon would then become a candidate for exploration to study its potential as a future habitable environment. Although it seems incredible enough that NASA has colonization ambitions for Mars, the space agency would love to add other locales to their list.
Scientists have learned that Enceladus is basically divided into two separate geographical hemispheres. The northern hemisphere is pock marked by impact craters with much less being visible in the southern hemisphere. Southern hemisphere terrain features fractured terrain with linear, ropy features.
Scientists believe the moon’s core to be solid rock and enveloped by an ocean that is sealed under an icy, frozen crust. The southern hemisphere has active jets which vent oceanic spray. This hypothesis is based on the finding that the moon has a bit of a wobble when it orbits Saturn. The presence of a global ocean underneath but not frozen to the icy crust would explain this wobble. It would also account for the plumes of icy spray that have been observed venting at the southern pole.
Scientists suspect that the ocean of Enceladus may also experience tidal type activity which could be the reason why the crust has not frozen solid to the surface of the water. If this is the case, it would be an indicator that Saturn’s gravity keeps the core of Enceladus warmer than was expected. Scientists have been studying Saturn and its moons for over seven years. Cassini will have a final close-up photo shoot of Enceladus in mid-December. Its task is to measure the heat emanating from the interior of the moon. The gringa is hoping for a tropical paradise hidden beneath that frigid surface. I can imagine living like a beach mole never seeing the sun but picnicking beach side in a sauna like atmosphere and catching space fish that have no eyeballs.