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No, seriously, NASA will fly a probe through Saturn's moon plumes

Cassini craft will buzz natural satellite to sample polar liquid jets

By Shaun Nichols, 26 Oct 2015

Vid NASA is just days away from a flyby in which its Cassini space probe will fly through liquid plumes on Saturn's moon Enceladus.

The agency's scientists said on Wednesday, October 28, its craft would fly down within 30 miles of the surface of the icy moon and attempt to pass through the plumes erupting from its south pole in hopes of determining whether the ocean moon has conditions suitable for life.

The hope, say NASA scientists, is to figure out if Enceladus has geothermic activity similar to that found in Earth's ocean. The hot-water vents allow simple life forms such as bacteria to thrive in an otherwise inhospitable environment.

In its brief 19,000mph flyby, Cassini will collect little more than a droplet of liquid. While the craft lacks the instruments to detect microscopic life, the team believes Cassini's hardware will at least be able to determine whether Enceladus has the hydrogen to suggest the conditions that could support life.

"This flyby can't detect life, but it will provide valuable insights into how habitable the ocean in Enceladus might be," said Cassini program scientist Curt Niebur.

"This is a very big step in a new era of exploring ocean worlds in our solar system, bodies with great potential to provide life."

Youtube video of Cassini's flyby

The flyby will also look to discover the cause of the recently discovered plumes on Enceladus. Specifically, scientists hope to determine whether the plumes come from "columns" shooting up from the surface, or are created by a single "curtain" of matter from one large rift in the moon's surface.

The results will begin to arrive on Friday and won't be able to specifically conclude whether Enceladus harbors life, but the hope is that in the days and weeks after the flyby, Cassini's data will provide cause for a future mission to moons such as Enceladus and Europa in hopes of finding life.

"If life arose twice in the Solar System, the implications for how it arises in the universe as a whole is profound," said Niebur.

The flyby will also be among the last major activities for the Cassini probe. The joint NASA/ESA craft is running low on fuel and will be wrapping up its journey next year with a series of Saturn flybys. The "grand finale" will be its descent into Saturn's atmosphere, where Cassini will send back a final set of readings before disintegrating into the gas giant. ®

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