Spacecraft prepares for icy shower near Saturn
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
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The Cassini spacecraft is about to get an icy shower as it orbits Saturn.

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

Cassini will be traveling 19,000 mph, so it should take just an instant to penetrate the plume.

A global liquid ocean is believed to exist beneath the frozen crust of 300-mile-wide Enceladus. Wednesday's dive will be the deepest one yet through the continuous plumes, making the enterprise a bit riskier than usual.

Launched in 1997, Cassini is not equipped to detect life, but scientists hope Wednesday's flyby will provide clues as to the possibility of it.

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

Other probable extraterrestrial ocean worlds: Saturn's largest moon, Titan; Jupiter's moons, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto; and possibly dwarf planets Pluto and Ceres, among others.

"These are worlds with huge bodies of liquid water underneath their surfaces, bodies with great potential to provide oases for life throughout our solar system," Niebur said Monday. "It's a journey in understanding about what makes a world habitable and 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, which 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.

If life exists - and more missions would be needed for confirmation - it might range from microscopic algae to little fish, the scientists said.

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 and many more weeks for a proper analysis.

Close-up pictures of Enceladus should be ready much sooner. Cassini will snap pictures of Enceladus 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 and have some dramatic shots by Thursday night or Friday. Saturnshine - akin to our moonshine - will provide the only lighting for the cameras.

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

Cassini has come closer to Enceladus - skimming 151/2 miles above the surface in 2008 - but never dipped so low through a plume.

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

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

  • tylerl-day
    11/04/2015 - 01:04 p.m.

    Life on Saturn would be so cool. If they found tiny fish, couldn't we bring fish from Earth to Saturn to try to bring the population of life up in hopes of one day letting a man survive there? I would totally live off of fish if it meant I could adventure to a whole new world. I'm tired of this world and how we function. Why do we fight each other? Why can't we realize we are all human beings on this organic planet orbiting the sun? We have so much more to accomplish but instead we are focused on little things and destroying our own world. We live in a world where paper money means everything. It controls our lives and keeps us small. We need to think big to become big.

  • jacobd-ver
    11/06/2015 - 12:46 p.m.

    I think that it cool how we already know that Saturn is going to have an icy shower. I find this amazing

  • gabelk-ren
    11/09/2015 - 12:27 p.m.

    The scientists hope that the spacecraft Cassini will detect signs of life on Saturn. They believe that there will be water in Saturn since there is a icy shower occurring near it."A global liquid ocean is believed to exist beneath the frozen crust...". If that is true the scientists may have found a new place for humans to live if they alter the properties of the moon.

  • sierrab-ste
    11/09/2015 - 04:49 p.m.

    If there was life on Saturn that would be amazing. If they already found fish there, there's a hope that people could possibly live there one day too. They need to try sending more fish from here to over there to try to see if the population will grow.

  • ShawnaWeiser-Ste
    11/10/2015 - 01:50 p.m.

    I find it absolutely astonishing that scientists can see so far into the galaxy. I mean being able to know that there is going to be an icy shower on Saturn is beyond anything I could imagine. Next we are going to be able to see to another galaxy!

  • elizabetht-fel
    11/16/2015 - 02:13 p.m.

    It gives scientists hope that Cassini may detect signs of life because there's water and where there's water, theoretically, there is life

  • mattv-fel
    11/16/2015 - 02:13 p.m.

    Since scientists have deducted that water exists below the surface of Enceladus, it might be possible for life to exist inside.

  • travisb-fel
    11/16/2015 - 02:13 p.m.

    Scientists have hope that Cassini might show signs of life because it has water, which is one of the key pieces of evidence needed to conclude if there is life.

  • callans-fel
    11/16/2015 - 02:14 p.m.

    Scientists hope that Cassini might find forms of life because where there is water, there is most likely life. Since life depends on water to survive, it will most likely live somewhere near water.

  • kolbyd-fel
    11/16/2015 - 02:14 p.m.

    What gives scientists hope that Cassini might detect signs of life is the fact that they believe they will find water in the plume.

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