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 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, providing the best sampling yet of its underground ocean.

Cassini will be traveling 19,000 mph. 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. This makes the enterprise a bit riskier than usual.

Cassini was launched in 1997. It is not equipped 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's according to NASA program scientist Curt Niebur.

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

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


COMMENTS (54)
  • TaylorSeifert-Ste
    11/02/2015 - 07:22 p.m.

    Even though it is believed that there may be life on other planets, which could be proven by inventions like the Cassini, I can't imagine them being anything like the life here on Earth. While scientists say there could be organisms like algae or small fish on Saturn, I think the life that may be there would be completely different and unlike any life found here.

    • konraddm-ren
      1/06/2016 - 07:32 p.m.

      Small microorganism were already found on Mars, and like you said, they are extremely far from the intelligence and size that us humans have. But that does not stop the chances of there being people in "galaxies far far away" that may have a lot of the same characteristics as humans. Maybe they had the same process of human life development (starting at the Big Bang creating earth, then earth made orgasms and then animals, etc.) and yes, those cartoons may be right of aliens having big eyes and round heads and gray skin. But it's for them to know and for us to find out. As it is unlikely that two species of aliens in the cosmos look the same, we might never know, and if we find creatures that are bigger than microorganisms, than they are one of a kind, and if we find another species of alien after that, they surely will have different looks, different intelligence level, and different characteristics themselves.

  • tyn-2-bar
    11/02/2015 - 10:47 p.m.

    In the article Niebur says "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," if water can provide oases for life, then that may give scientists hope that life may be on Enceladus since it has underground oases. I think that alien life is a very interesting possibility. I think I might devote my self to alien life if a multi cellular organism from another planet is found.

  • EH-Fuh
    11/03/2015 - 10:07 a.m.

    That they are closer than ever before so that they can shoot better pictures.

  • Eric0221-YYCA
    11/03/2015 - 09:35 p.m.

    I think that it is cool for a spacecraft to be landing on one of Jupiter's moon, Callisto, in the south pole of Callisto, water vapor and frozen particles showering over the surface of the South Pole of Callisto. The moon might have been a mystery because how would there be water on one of Jupiter's moon, Callisto.

  • vincents-1-bar
    11/03/2015 - 10:37 p.m.

    In the article Niebur says "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," if water can provide oases for life, then that may give scientists hope that life may be on Enceladus since it has underground oases. I think that alien life is a very interesting possibility. I think I might devote my self to alien life if a multi cellular organism from another planet is found.

  • brookeb-612-
    11/04/2015 - 09:17 a.m.

    Scientist have hope that Cassini might detect signs of life because Enceladus has a huge body of slightly salty water beneath its surface. They are hoping to identify hydrogen molecules in the plumes, which would make the percentage of a chance of life on Enceladus, even greater.

  • stevenh-mci
    11/04/2015 - 11:41 a.m.

    Scientist hope that there might be life on Cassini because there is something like water for what ever life is there or that will form there in the future and scientists think that something like water on Earth is one of the ingredients of life.

  • armaand-ren
    11/04/2015 - 12:33 p.m.

    What gives scientists hope to find life is that they think that there is an ocean under the ice on Saturn. They also want to get humans to live there sometime.

  • danielt-ren
    11/04/2015 - 12:37 p.m.

    Because Cassini is flying 30 miles away from the Planet. Scientists have been examining the planet for life. They think there is life.

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