Spacecraft prepares for icy shower near Saturn This Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015 image provided by NASA shows Saturn's moon Enceladus, center, as the Cassini spacecraft prepared to make a close flyby of the icy moon. A portion of the planet's ring is at right. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute via AP)
Spacecraft prepares for icy shower near Saturn
Lexile

The Cassini spacecraft is about to get an icy shower. This will happen as it orbits Saturn.

On Wednesday, Cassini will storm through a jet of water vapor and frozen particles. The water vapor and frozen particles erupt from the south pole of Enceladus. Enceladus is one of Saturn's many moons. The spacecraft will zoom within 30 miles of the pole. This will provide the best sampling yet of its underground ocean.

Cassini will be traveling 19,000 mph. It should take just an instant to enter the plume.

A global liquid ocean is thought to exist beneath Enceladus' frozen crust. Enceladus is 300 miles wide. Wednesday's dive will be the deepest one yet through the continuous plumes. This makes the mission a bit riskier than usual.

Cassini was launched in 1997. It is not built to detect life. But scientists hope Wednesday's flyby will provide clues as to the possibility of it.

Wednesday's feat is a "a very big step in a new era of exploring ocean worlds in our solar system." That is according to NASA program scientist Curt Niebur.

There are other probable extraterrestrial ocean worlds. Those include Saturn's largest moon, Titan. It also includes Jupiter's moons, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Others might possibly be dwarf planets Pluto and Ceres.

"These are worlds with huge bodies of liquid water underneath their surfaces. The bodies have great potential to provide oases for life throughout our solar system," Niebur said Monday. "It is a journey in understanding about what makes a world habitable. It is a journey where we might find life. And where we might one day live ourselves."

Researchers are eager to nail down the chemical makeup of Enceladus' plumes. They also hope to confirm whether the eruptions are tight columns or curtains of jets running along fractures in the south pole.

In particular, the spacecraft will be looking to identify hydrogen molecules in the plume. This would help quantify hydrothermal activity occurring on the ocean floor. That, in turn, would help characterize the potential for life in this slightly salty ocean.

More missions would be needed for confirmation of life. Life might range from microscopic algae to little fish.

The action unfolds late Wednesday morning Eastern Time. It will take several hours to confirm success and start returning the information.

Spilker expects it will take a week to get a quick look at the scientific data. It will take many more weeks for a proper analysis.

Close-up pictures of Enceladus should be ready much sooner. Cassini will snap pictures of Enceladus. Pictures will be taken before, during and after the close encounter. The images will be smeared because of Cassini's speed. But the team hopes to remove the blurs. They hope to have some dramatic shots by Thursday night or Friday. Saturnshine is like our moonshine. It will provide the only lighting for the cameras.

This will be the 21st flyby of Enceladus by Cassini. "It is not our last, but arguably this one is going to be our most dramatic." That is according to project manager Earl Maize.

Cassini has come closer to Enceladus but never dipped so low through a plume. It skimmed 15 1/2 miles above the surface in 2008.

Scientists were tempted to fly even lower Wednesday. But they did not want to waste fuel. Cassini's orbit around Saturn will not be disturbed by the plume penetration. The U.S.-European spacecraft has two years of life remaining. Then it will plunge into Saturn's atmosphere and vaporize.

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
What gives scientists hope that Cassini might detect signs of life?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (12)
  • delindag-sti
    11/05/2015 - 10:32 a.m.

    Oceans and water pockets gives hope that scientists might find life.

  • allisong-sti
    11/05/2015 - 10:40 a.m.

    A machine might give scientists hope Cassini that it will detect signs of life.

  • camerond-sti
    11/05/2015 - 10:47 a.m.

    Scientists hope that the Cassini might detect signs of life. When the world is full of humans they can take the humans at the plant.

  • camdent-sti
    11/06/2015 - 01:24 p.m.

    What gives scientists hope is that if they find life they can prove that aliens are real and everyone will belive that they are real and prove each others thoghts.

  • teaganw-sti
    11/06/2015 - 01:28 p.m.

    Scientist hope that Cassini might detect signs of life by going through an ice shower with saterns light.

  • carters-sti
    11/06/2015 - 01:28 p.m.

    I gives hope to scientists hope Cassini might detect signs of life because you can see all the planets and see what they look like. The picture can prove if allens are really alive in space and it will prove people are wrong or not and planets look like in space

  • trentonw-buc
    11/09/2015 - 09:18 a.m.

    I did not know that we might live on one of saturn's moons. The Cassini was put in space in1997 which has been a long time.

  • katelync-sti
    11/09/2015 - 01:22 p.m.

    Scientists hope that Cassini might detect sign of life because there is water on the planet. I think this is very cool.

  • baileeb-sti
    11/09/2015 - 01:23 p.m.

    Scientists hope that Cassini might detect signs of life by taking pictures of Saturne and looking at them real close beacause then they can see if there is life on Saturne then some day we might live there.

  • ayvaa-sti
    11/09/2015 - 01:24 p.m.

    Oceans and water give scientists hope that Cassini might detect signs of life.

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