October 30, 2015 by Lindsey N. Walker, Astrobiology Magazine
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft completed its deepest-ever dive through the icy plume of Enceladus on Oct. 28, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The Cassini spacecraft took a daring plunge into the icy geysers of Saturn's moon Enceladus this week in search of telltale signs of a habitable environment.
The plume continuously jets thousands of miles into space from tiger stripe fissures in the moon's south pole, carrying particles from the vast salty ocean sloshing just beneath the icy surface.
Cassini's sweep though the icy fountain completes its second of three Enceladus flyby missions this year and is NASA's best shot at determining whether this small moon has the right ingredients to harbor life.
The encounter with the mysterious plume lasted only tens of seconds as Cassini hurtled past at a speed of about 19,000 miles per hour, yet in these critical moments up to 10,000 particles per second were sampled and identified using the probe's cosmic dust analyzer. Analysis of this data over the coming weeks could provide the most promising signs of habitability yet in the decade since Cassini's initial flyby of the moon in 2005.
"Cassini's instruments do not have the capability to detect life itself," Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker, told Astrobiology Magazine. "Those instruments can, however, make powerful measurements about the ocean and its potential habitability."
Earl Maize, Cassini's deputy program manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, further clarified the probe's abilities.