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.
Chariklo is the largest confirmed centaur, a minor planet orbiting the Sun between Saturn and Uranus. In 2014, two rings were discovered around Chariklo. Soon after, scientists discovered that rings likely exist around another centaur, Chiron, but the origin of these rings remained a mystery — until now.
NASA’s Cassini probe recently peered through the hazy clouds of Saturn’s moon Titan to reveal features on the surface below. The infrared image was captured during a more distant than usual fly past of the moon.
Days after a fleeting plunge through the icy plumes of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is broadcasting tantalizing data back to Earth for scientists eager to address the moon’s prospects for life.