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article imageSpacecraft passes Saturn moon low enough to 'taste' the vapour

By David Brydon     Mar 28, 2012 in Science
NASA's Cassini spacecraft's latest flyby of Enceladus, in orbit of Saturn, was its lowest pass yet of the moon's gushing south poles. New data is being analyzed, adding to the idea that this moon may even be capable of harbouring life.
The flyby occurred on Tuesday, 19:30 GMT, at an altitude of a mere 74 kilometres (46 miles) from Enceladus' frozen surface. Explosive activity at the south pole, in the form of jets, appear to shoot out massive quantities of ice and water vapour.
According to NASA, the Cassini spacecraft's flyby was close enough to "taste" these vapours. An instrument known as a Neutral Mass Spectrometer is being used on the spacecraft to collect data on these vapours to learn more about their composition.
It has been long-suspected, however, that there is more to Enceladus than what the surface shows us. Scientists have already detected the presence of salt in the jets, leading to the suggestion that beneath the moon's icy surface is an ocean of water. Meanwhile, the jets themselves are likely connected to Saturn's massive gravity putting strain on the small moon, giving it an erratic elliptical orbit as well.
Despite the moon being about 1/7th the size of our own moon, with an average surface temperature of -198 celcius, NASA states that the rocky core of the tiny frozen moon interacting with the sub-surface ocean might be able to forge the ingredients for life.
"[Enceladus] is emerging as the most habitable spot beyond Earth in the Solar System for life as we know it.", NASA scientists stated in May 2011 at an Enceladus Focus Group Conference.
The Cassini spacecraft used to collect this data was launched on October 15 1997, and entered Saturn's orbit on July 1, 2004. It has since been studying Saturn and its moons, and will continue doing so until its planned impact into Saturn in 2017.
Artist s conception of the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn.
Artist's conception of the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn.
More about NASA, Saturn, Cassini, Space, Moon
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