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.

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


COMMENTS (16)
  • laurah-lam
    11/03/2015 - 01:01 p.m.

    There are massive bodies of water throughout our solar system which we have only found very few that we know of. We see how much our daily lives revolve around water and that gives us a reason to question if there really is life somewhere out there.

  • kevinm1-sch
    11/03/2015 - 01:44 p.m.

    Because any planet could have life because that life might be able to adapt the the temperatures in that climate/world.

  • collinf-2-bar
    11/03/2015 - 09:09 p.m.

    Scientists have hope that Cassini might detect signs of life because on Wednesday, it will be in one of the closest positions it has ever been to Enceladus. This will provide the best sampling yet of the underground ocean on Enceladus. "The spacecraft will zoom within 30 miles of the pole, providing the best sampling yet of its underground ocean."

    I was surprised that when Cassini runs out of life it will just fall into Saturn's atmosphere and vaporize.

  • jacksonm-2-bar
    11/04/2015 - 10:10 a.m.

    Scientists might have hope detecting signs of life because Enceladus might have a "global ocean" that lies 300 miles underneath the crust of the moon. The one key part about scientists finding life is the fact that they are lowering the altitude from 150 miles to 30 miles to hopefully receive pictures of some life or liquid water. I thought this article was interesting because of the fact that we are looking at one of sterns moon and Saturn the 7th furthest planet away from the sun.

  • carsonk-2-bar
    11/04/2015 - 10:15 a.m.

    The spacecraft will be able to detect signs of life and if there is life there, then it has adapted. "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," This article was interesting because it is cool to see that were orbiting around Saturn! This article surprised me because I didn't really expect life on Saturn and I guess that there is most likely life there.

  • jacksonm-4-bar
    11/04/2015 - 06:48 p.m.

    Scientist get hope that Cassini might detect sign of life because Cassini" The spacecraft will zoom within 30 miles of the pole, providing the best sampling yet of its underground ocean." This close to a moon might give scientists hope there is life in the ocean.

  • allyb-ver
    11/04/2015 - 06:59 p.m.

    This article is about spacecraft prepares for icy shower near Saturn. It is good that they saw it was coming to that planet but there is nothing they can do for it. There are bodies of water and you need it to survive and Cassini can find that.

  • reidi-4-bar
    11/05/2015 - 07:13 p.m.

    A cassani spacecraft is going to fly 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. IN my opinion I think it is cool that this is going to be the deepest we have ever gotten into the plumes. It says that there is believed to be an underground ocean and the journey will help us further study that.

  • aidanp-1-bar
    11/05/2015 - 10:09 p.m.

    All life needs water. Since Enceladus has water there is a chance for life even if it is in super cold water. Possible bacteria or plants may live there and if so it could shape the way we think about aliens.

  • seans-2-bar
    11/05/2015 - 10:58 p.m.

    If the Cassini spacecraft identifies hydrogen molecules in the plumes of Enceladus one of the moons of Saturn, it could give clues to the hydrothermal activity on the moons ocean floor which in return could stimulate life on this moon. This article was an interesting take the search for life on other planets.

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