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NASA is going to fly the Cassini spacecraft through a geyser on Saturn’s moon Enceladus

With NASA’s Saturn-exploring Cassini spacecraft nearly drained of its available fuel, the agency has recently announced that it has one final adventure planned for the probe. According to a recent release, NASA intends to send Cassini within roughly 31 miles of the surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus and through one of the body’s geyser-like plumes. Considering scientists previously confirmed a global ocean residing just underneath Enceladus’ icy crust, the intended goal of the flyby is to identify the moon’s plumes in order to more accurately plot out a future life-searching mission.

“The joy of Enceladus is that you don’t need to land on it,” Cassini program scientist Curt Niebur said recently during a news conference at NASA’s headquarters. “It is spewing samples into space all the time. We just have to fly by at the right time and the right trajectory.”

Enceladus' south polar region

Enceladus’ south polar region

Over the course of the last eleven years orbiting Saturn, Cassini has recorded an abundance of information about the planet and its surroundings. After discovering Enceladus and analyzing its geological activity, it was able to determine the existence of the moon’s global ocean and what was likely hydrothermal activity — meaning it may harbor the ingredients for basic life. Though Cassini doesn’t possess the kind of necessary equipment to detect life, the upcoming flyby should help provide information concerning the ocean’s habitability and an estimated amount of its hydrothermal activity.

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“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 continued. “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.”

Currently, scientists aren’t even sure the exact composition of Enceladus’ plumes (whether they’re column-like, individual jets, or sinuous, icy curtain eruptions), something Cassini’s mission will hopefully solve. Depending on the exact form of the plumes, it’s also expected to help clear up how material travels from the moon’s surface into its oceans. Though slightly less informative, the flyby will also produce a slew of up close and clear photographs of Enceladus and its surface, providing the best view of the moon to date.

Cassini’s last hurrah will take place early Wednesday morning Western Time, though NASA expects several hours to pass before receiving official confirmation of the mission’s success or failure. Project scientist Dr. Linda Spilker estimates it might take roughly a week for the team to get a quick glance at the initial information gathered, and acknowledged several weeks were needed for thorough analysis of the data. Time is on their side, however, as another trip of this magnitude could take decades to plan.