Until a couple of years ago, Saturn’s moon Enceladus (that’s en-sell-uh-duhs) was thought to be pretty boring – it was just another cold lump of rock like our own Moon. But then two years ago, the Cassini probe discovered something that revolutionized our view of Enceladus: around its South Pole are geysers spewing ice, dust and gas into space. In fact, Enceladus is also thought to be one of the most likely places in our Solar System to find life.
Now, Cassini is flying back to discover more about Enceladus, but it’s doing something a bit different to what space probes usually do. It will fly directly into the fountains of material above the geysers, sometimes at a height of just 30 miles above the surface. Rather than just taking photos, it will collect samples of the material that the geysers are releasing, and analyze it to see what its chemical composition is like. Click here for NASA’s Enceladus Flyby blog.
But it’s not just huge geysers that make Enceladus interesting. Think how Yellowstone’s Old Faithful works – it’s all down to the heat of the Earth warming up the water so that it shoots upward. It’s not much different on Enceladus – in fact, Enceladus is a very geologically active body, and is among only two other Solar System bodies that have been seen erupting (the other two are Jupiter’s moon Io and Neptune’s satellite Triton).
Unlike on Earth where magma is the hot material, it is thought to be water-based on Enceladus. What causes the heat in a body so far away from the Sun? The main theory is that Saturn’s gravitational pull causes ‘tidal friction’, which generates heat in this otherwise icy moon.
Wait a minute… water, heat – they’re two key ingredients for life. It is indeed one of the places NASA is concentrating on in the search for ET. Enceladus is fast turning into one of the most exciting, revolutionary places in our Solar System – I can’t wait for the discoveries to come in the weeks and months ahead.
Check out this great post by Kate Tobin on CNN’s Sci-Tech blog. | This new interactive from NASA is a great resource for Enceladus – the intro video at the good is excellent. | Also, NASA has just released a site that lets you fly along with Cassini as it explores Saturn and its moons. It’s pretty cool in my opinion.
UPDATE: NASA has now released some of the images from this flyby. Click here to see them.
Filed under: Exploration, Nature, Science, Space, Technology | Tagged: America, astronomy, cassini, cassini huygens, Enceladus, ESA, Europe, flyby, geyser, geysers, huygens, ice, moon, NASA, news, Saturn, US, USA |