NASA to conduct ‘deepest ever’ flyby of Saturn moon to investigate ocean’s habitability

By on October 27, 2015
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NASA is planning to sample an extraterrestrial ocean to find out whether it could be habitable.

The space agency said its Cassini spacecraft will fly through an icy plume spurting from Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

It will be Cassini’s closest ever approach to the moon, with the craft flying just 49 kilometres above Enceladus’ south pole to pass through the plume.

Last month, NASA said Cassini had discovered a global ocean beneath Enceladus’ icy surface and a plume of ice, water vapour and organic molecules spraying from its south pole.

Science system engineer Morgan Cable said the flyby was not intended to detect life, but to provide insight into the ocean’s habitability.

“Cassini was never designed to look for life, but it does have powerful instruments that can be used to look for habitability,” she said.

“We’re looking for the conditions suitable for life.

“Life needs three things … it needs water, it needs chemistry and it needs energy.

“Right now, some of these lines of evidence are telling us that Enceladus has these three things.”
Molecular hydrogen key to whether ocean could host life

She said Cassini had already detected organic molecules on Enceladus, such as methane, carbon dioxide and ammonia.

However, Ms Cable said the craft would this time be looking for molecular hydrogen.

“This molecule can tell us about things like hydrothermal activity,” she said.

“That is very important as we start to answer that question of is there really life on Enceladus.”

NASA said the flyby would also shed light on what the plume looked like – whether it was composed of column-like jets, an icy curtain, or both – and how much material is being sprayed into space, which would have implications for how long Enceladus had been active.

This flyby is the second of three planned for Enceladus before the Cassini spacecraft moves on.

In December, Cassini will fly to an altitude of 4,999 kilometres to measure the heat flowing from the moon’s interior.

The craft was launched in 1997 and reached Saturn’s orbit in 2004.

It has been orbiting Enceladus since last year.

Click here to watch-Deep Dive into Enceladus Plume

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