Fig 1. Dark Moon, Dramatic Plume
March 12, 2012 Full-Res: PIA14599
Below a darkened Enceladus, a plume of water ice is backlit in this view of one of Saturn’s most dramatic moons. Lit terrain seen here is on the leading hemisphere of Enceladus (313 miles, or 504 kilometers across). North is up.
The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Feb. 20, 2012. The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 83,000 miles (134,000 kilometers) from Enceladus and at a Sun-Enceladus-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 165 degrees. Image scale is 2,628 feet (801 meters) per pixel.
The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
At last count, Saturn has 62 moons and Titan has garnered most of the news since its initial exploration. However, in 2005 an icy water plume was spotted emanating from the southern pole of Enceladus. Enceladus has long been thought to be a dead planet but the area of emanation is a hot spot of geological and under-surface activity. The primary question, what is driving the expulsion of water and other molecular species from the south pole of Enceladus—serves as the purpose for extending the Cassini mission for a few more years, at least. A successful fly-by of Enceladus may also propel a new mission—one of returning samples from Enceladus. The mission: LIFE—Life Investigation For Enceladus is one mission concept that can be done within our lifetime. The mission is fairly cheap which boasts a “comparable” nature to any “flagship” landing mission of the future. If launched before 2019, it could take advantage of a “Jupiter gravity-assist” and collect samples from a plume by 2023. The concept is similar to STARDUST—the mission that collected solar system dust particles utilizing aerogel.
If one does recall STARDUST, the return probe crashed in the Utah desert—but the results have been anything but bad. That particular mission generated ground-breaking results (confirming the presence of glycine in a comet) and was a successful citizen-science project.
The successful return of samples from Enceladus would mark the second sample return since Apollo.
What is known and speculated about Enceladus is that it may harbor life—but more importantly, if life is not found, it is serves as an astrobiology lab. The under surface serves as lab conditions of a cold, early Earth. The presence of carbon, nitrogen and oxygen molecular species may the “perfect pre-synthetic” conditions for a Strecker Amino Acid lab.
The anomalously warm southern pole of Enceladus beckons our intellectual curiosity.
Fig. 2 Cassini Fly-by E-19
E-19 is a radio science (RSS) gravity flyby, one of three (along with E-9 and E-12) designed to understand the internal structure of Enceladus, particularly the concentration of mass under the south polar region, which may provide insight into the plume activity on the moon.
LIFE: Enceladus Sample Return Mission Concept for Searching Evidence of Life.