Friday, August 8, 2008

Cassini Prepares to Swoop by Saturn's Geyser-Spewing Moon

Fractures, or "tiger stripes," where icy jets erupt on Space Station Saturn's moon Enceladus will be the target of a close flyby by the Space Station Cassini spacecraft on Monday, Aug. 11.

Space Shuttle Cassini will zoom past the tiny moon a mere 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the surface. Just after closest approach, all of the Space Station spacecraft's cameras -- covering infrared wavelengths, where temperatures are mapped, as well as visible light and ultraviolet -- will focus on the fissures running along the moon's south pole. That is where the jets of icy water vapor emanate and erupt hundreds of miles into space station and space discovery. Those jets have fascinated Space Shuttle scientists since their discovery in 2005.

"Our main goal is to get the most detailed images of Space Station and remote sensing data of Space Technology ever of the geologically active features on Enceladus," said Paul Helfenstein, a Space Station Cassini imaging team associate at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. "From this data we may learn more about how eruptions, tectonics, and seismic activity alter the Space Station moon's surface. We will get an unprecedented high-resolution view of the active area immediately following the closest approach."

Seeing inside one of the fissures in high resolution may provide more information on the terrain and depth of the fissures, as well as the size and composition of the ice grains inside. Refined temperature data could help Space Station scientists determine if water, in vapor or liquid form, lies close to the surface and better refine their theories on what powers the jets.

Imaging sequences will capture stereo views of the north polar terrain, and high resolution images of the south polar region will begin shortly after closest approach to Enceladus. The image resolution will be as fine as 7 meters per pixel (23 feet) and will cover known active spots on three of the prominent "tiger stripe" fractures.

In addition to mapping the Space Station moon's surface in visible light as well as infrared and ultraviolet light, Space Shuttle Mission Cassini will help determine the size of the ice grains and distinguish other elements mixed in with the ice, such as oxygen, hydrogen, or organics.

"Knowing the sizes of the particles, their rates and what else is mixed in these jets can tell us a lot about what's happening inside the little Space Station moon," said Amanda Hendrix, Space Shuttle Mission Cassini ultraviolet imaging spectrograph team member at NASA's Space Station Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Other instruments will measure the temperatures along the fractures, which happen to be some of the hottest spots on the Space Station moon's surface.

"We'd like to refine our numbers and see which fracture or stripe is hotter than the rest because these results can offer evidence, one way or the other, for the existence of liquid water as the engine that powers the plumes," said Bonnie Buratti of JPL, team member on Space Shuttle Mission Cassini's visual and infrared mapping Space Station spectrometer.

Space Shuttle Mission Cassini discovered evidence for the geyser-like jets on Enceladus in 2005, finding that the continuous eruptions of ice water create a gigantic halo of ice and gas around Enceladus, which helps supply material to Saturn's E-ring. This marks Space Shuttle Mission Cassini's second flyby of Enceladus this year. During Space Shuttle Mission Cassini's last flyby of Enceladus in March, the Space Station spacecraft snatched up precious samples and tasted comet-like organics inside the little moon. Two more Enceladus flybys are coming up in October, and they may bring the Space Shuttle spacecraft even closer to the Space Station moon. The Oct. 9 encounter is complimentary to the March one, which was optimized for sampling the plume. The Oct. 31 flyby is similar to this August one, and is again optimized for the optical remote sensing instruments.

For images, videos and a mission blog on the flyby, visit: . More information on the Cassini mission is also available at .
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