Skip to main content

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 NASA

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.

“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.

Editors' Recommendations

Rick Stella
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Rick became enamored with technology the moment his parents got him an original NES for Christmas in 1991. And as they say…
Why is Saturn’s atmosphere so warm? Cassini data could explain
This false-color composite image shows auroras (depicted in green) above the cloud tops of Saturn's south pole. The 65 observations used here were captured by Cassini's visual and infrared mapping spectrometer on Nov. 1, 2008.

Although we are learning more than ever before about the other planets in our solar system, there are still plenty of mysteries to unwind. One open question is why exactly the atmosphere of gas giants like Saturn is so warm, even when the planet is located far from the sun.

Saturn's atmosphere is composed primarily of hydrogen, with a smaller amount of helium and traces of methane and water ice. It has highly variable temperatures, with some regions being up to 80 degrees Celcius in temperature and others as low as -250 degrees Celsius. Saturn is also home to some of the strongest winds in the solar system, with wind speeds of over 1,100 miles per hour.

Read more
NASA hasn’t been to the moon in almost 50 years. Now, it’s going back annually
2020 tech trends for the decade nasa artemis moon mission

NASA hasn’t been to the moon since 1972, but starting in 2021, the agency plans to make trips to the moon every year through 2030. 

The space agency laid out the plans in its Budget Estimates document for 2021. The first Artemis mission would be in 2021, but it would be uncrewed. Then, in 2022, a test crew flight will happen, followed by the Gateway space station, which is an outpost that would orbit the moon.

Read more
Could Enceladus, the icy moon of Saturn, be capable of supporting life?
Saturn's geologically active moon, Enceladus.

New research using data from the Cassini probe suggests that Enceladus, the moon of Saturn with an ocean hidden beneath a thick layer of ice, could be capable of supporting life.

Cracks in the icy surface of the moon let out plumes of gases and sea spray, and data about these plumes can reveal more about the ocean beneath the ice. “By understanding the composition of the plume, we can learn about what the ocean is like, how it got to be this way and whether it provides environments where life as we know it could survive,” Dr. Christopher Glein of the Southwest Research Institute, lead author of the research, explained in a statement.

Read more