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  (Source: NASA)
NASA's JPL's Cassini space probe comes startling close to a rare stellar mystery today.

The Cassini space probe will soon complete its four-year primary mission to study Saturn, its rings, and its moons. Though close to its June completion, the Cassini mission's operators will be busy today, as the spacecraft makes a very close flyby of one of Saturn's more interesting moons, Enceladus.

What interests scientists most about Enceladus is the giant geyser at its south pole. While the moon itself is a mere 500 kilometers in diameter, the geyser, which is composed mostly of micrometer-sized ice particles, extends almost three times that distance into space. The geyser makes Enceladus one of the most geologically active bodies in our solar system.

Though the flyby seems daring, at one point coming as close as 50 kilometers to the surface near the moon's equator, it will be four times that distance when it reaches the outskirts of the plume of vapor and particles. Though the ejected matter leaves the geyser at approximately 400 meters per second, the small size of the particles shouldn't pose a problem to the space probe at the speed and altitude where it will encounter them.

The team hopes to use Cassini's particle analysis equipment to get a better understanding of what kinds of materials are spewing from the planet's interior. While some of the particles are pure water ice, other components include gases like carbon dioxide and methane. Analyzing the composition will help scientists quantify and understand any differences between the plume and the envelope of material that surrounds the entire moon and understand how the plume itself was formed.

Should today's flyby conclude successfully, other, more daring flybys may be planned for the craft's proposed extended mission cycle to begin in August of this year.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has created a movie explaining and illustrating Cassini's mission and can be found here (flash multimedia).



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Minor error
By HrilL on 3/12/2008 8:38:35 AM , Rating: 2
quote:
the moon itself is a mere 500 miles kilometers in diameter


It should read the moon is only 500 kilometers (310 miles) in diameter.

I hope all turns out well and maybe they will discover something new in the particles.




RE: Minor error
By eye smite on 3/12/2008 9:31:15 AM , Rating: 4
What would be even more interesting is if they had designed some way to steer it back towards earth, dock with the space station and deliver samples of what it finds in the geyser.


RE: Minor error
By drank12quartsstrohsbeer on 3/12/2008 9:47:02 AM , Rating: 2
Didn't you ever see the movie "the Andromedia Strain"? We would all have to drink squeeze.


Life!
By Raidin on 3/12/2008 12:28:39 PM , Rating: 3
If there's life out there, it's on this moon!

quote:
While some of the particles are pure water ice, other components include gases like carbon dioxide and methane.


Obviously someone is drinking, breathing, and farting down there!




RE: Life!
By therealnickdanger on 3/12/2008 4:21:10 PM , Rating: 2
I know this probably goes against ethics of some kind, but I would love to see what happens if we introduced alien (from earth) bacteria to an environment like this, like the bacteria that live adjacent to underwater vents. Make the whole moon into one giant Petri dish.


RE: Life!
By Iketh on 3/12/2008 6:38:25 PM , Rating: 2
could already have some


No pic?
By therealnickdanger on 3/12/2008 8:27:06 AM , Rating: 4
Here's one for ya!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Fountains_of_En...

All I can think of when seeing images of this moon is Mario Galaxy. I can just see that little plumber running around the mini-globe, trying to evade geysers... and Saturnian goombas, naturally.




RE: No pic?
By therealnickdanger on 3/12/2008 4:17:11 PM , Rating: 2
I guess my pic wasn't good enough for you...

*gun in mouth*


Extended Mission
By Cygni on 3/12/2008 11:53:47 AM , Rating: 3
It should also be noted that this wont be the end for Cassini. An extended mission has been planned until at least 2010, although NASA wont officially decide on its funding for a few more weeks at the earliest. Its nearly guaranteed that the extended mission will be approved, as the Cassini probe has been one of the most wildly succesfull spacecraft in history. Its list of discoveries is truly mind boggling, as even the Wiki for it shows.

Heres a great article on the selection process for the extended mission, written by one of the scientists on the project: http://www.planetary.org/blog/article/00000850/




RE: Extended Mission
By mezman on 3/12/2008 3:18:17 PM , Rating: 2
Yeah, thank God that Cassini has those plutonium powered RTGs on it that the hippies were all up in arms about. Hopefully this beast will be able to continue providing valuable information for years to come.


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