Experts at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in Pasadena, California, announce that the Cassini spacecraft will carry out a new flyby over the Saturnine moon Enceladus. The maneuver will be special because the probe will use its radar instruments to map the ice-covered space rock.
This is the first time that these instruments are used on another celestial body other than Titan, the largest moon around Saturn. Having access to high-resolution radar images of Enceladus' surface could potentially help planetary scientists gain a deeper insight into what's going on beneath its surface.
Astronomers became very interested in this moon as soon as they observed plumes of organic compounds and water vapors coming out of tiger stripe-like structure in the surface of the body, around its south pole. Such geysers are unique to this world.
During the dozens of passes Cassini made around Enceladus, experts have been focused on imaging these particular formations, as they wanted to learn whether a liquid ocean can be found beneath the miles-thick ice crust or not.
At this point however, scientists are beginning to wonder about the similarities that may exist between Enceladus and Titan in terms of geological features on the surface. Seeing that most of the latter moon has already been imaged in radar wavelengths, experts now naturally turn their attention to the former.
“The spacecraft will fly past Enceladus at a distance of about 300 miles (500 kilometers) at its closest point. During the encounter, Cassini's synthetic aperture radar will sweep across a long, narrow swath of the surface just north of the moon's south pole,” a JPL press release
“During this flyby, the mission's visible-light cameras will take images of Enceladus and its famous jets, and the composite infrared spectrometer will make new measurements of hot spots from which the jets emerge,” the statement adds.
At the same time, the ultraviolet imaging spectrograph on the probe will be focused on the environment of another one of Saturn's moons, Dione. This space object has been imaged only in passing, and astronomers are very curios to learn the surprises it keeps in store for them.
Cassini has been studying Saturn, its rings and its moons since achieving orbital insertion around the planet, on July 1, 2004. It is the product of a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Italian Space Agency (ASI).
JPL manages the mission for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, at the agency's Headquarters, in Washington, DC.