March 29, 2008

Cassini Meets The Jets of Enceladus

NASA's Cassini spacecraft made a close flyby on Wednesday March 12 of Enceladus, one of Saturn's numerous moons. Cassini flew by the moon at 15 kilometers per second (32,000 mph), through icy water jets, that are similar to geysers. With the information from the flyby, the tiny ice moon Enceladus is revealed to be active and hot. It also has a lot of water vapor and organic material.

There are many fractures running along the moon's south pole, from which the geysers shoot out water vapor at 400 meters per second (800 mph). The geysers added evidence that there may be liquid water under the icy crust of Enceladus.

Also, new heat maps of Enceladus taken by Cassini show higher temperatures in the south pole region, and hot tracks running along the fractures (see image at right). The strips of warmth, also called "tiger stripes," are giant fissures that are the source of the geysers.

The surprising thing about all this news was that the material coming from the inside of Enceladus resembles that of a comet. The Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer aboard the Cassini spacecraft saw a combination of volatile gases, water vapor, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and organic materials. It seems that all of these materials are pointing ton one thing: life. However, the final ingredient, liquid water, has not been confirmed yet.

All of these developments may lead to more information about the formation and composition of Saturn and its moons.

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