NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has begun transmitting data and images from the mission’s final close flyby of Saturn’s active moon Enceladus. Cassini passed Enceladus at a distance of 3,106 miles (4,999 kilometres) on Saturday, 19 December at 5:49pm GMT (12:49pm EST).
“This final Enceladus flyby elicits feelings of both sadness and triumph,” said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at JPL. “While we’re sad to have the close flybys behind us, we’ve placed the capstone on an incredible decade of investigating one of the most intriguing bodies in the solar system.”Cassini will continue to monitor activity on Enceladus from a distance, through the end of its mission in September 2017. Future encounters will be much farther away — at closest, more than four times farther than this latest encounter.
This was the 22nd Enceladus encounter of Cassini’s mission. The spacecraft’s discovery of geologic activity there, not long after arriving at Saturn, prompted changes to the mission’s flight plan to maximise the number and quality of flybys of the icy moon.“We bid a poignant goodbye to our close views of this amazing icy world,” said Linda Spilker, the mission’s project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “Cassini has made so many breathtaking discoveries about Enceladus, yet so much more remains to be done to answer that pivotal question, ‘Does this tiny ocean world harbour life?'”
After revealing Enceladus’ surprising geologic activity in 2005, Cassini made a series of discoveries about the material gushing from warm fractures near its south pole. Scientists announced strong evidence for a regional subsurface sea in 2014, revising their understanding in 2015 to confirm that the moon hosts a global ocean beneath its icy crust.
Saturn’s shadow stretched beyond the edge of its rings for many years after the NASA/ESA/ASI Cassini spacecraft first arrived at Saturn, casting an ever-lengthening shadow that reached its maximum extent at the planet’s 2009 equinox. This image captured the moment in 2015 when the shrinking shadow just barely reached across the entire main ring system.
Often referred to as the Jewel of the Solar System, Saturn reaches opposition on May 23rd and is currently best placed for observation during 2015. Despite the planet’s southerly declination, its glorious ring system is favourably tipped in our direction with the northern hemisphere on show.
Scientists announced Thursday that measurements from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft detected hydrogen gas, a key energy source for microbial life, in a plume gushing from a vast liquid water ocean buried beneath the icy shell of Saturn’s moon Enceladus.