Geyser Buzz!

Geysers of water ice erupt from Saturn's enigmatic moon Enceladus
Glittering geysers of water ice erupt from Saturn's enigmatic moon Enceladus as seen during a previous flyby. The plumes are backlit by the sun, which is almost directly behind the moon. The moon's dark side that we see here is illuminated by reflected Saturn-shine. Today, the Cassini spacecraft flew right through the plumes in order to let its instruments 'taste' them. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI/Ugarkovich
Ice plumes on Saturn's moon Enceladus
Ice plumes on Saturn's moon Enceladus. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus is quite possibly the most intriguing place in the entire solar system. This weird little world was once thought to be nothing but an unchanging ball of ice. That was until the robotic spacecraft Cassini discovered giant jets of water ice continually erupting from the moon’s south pole. Saturn explorers now believe that hidden beneath the airless, icy surface there may be a vast underground ocean.

Today, Cassini buzzed by Enceladus in its lowest pass yet over the south polar region. It flew right through the spray of icy particles and water vapor. The closest approach, at an altitude of about 46 miles (74 kilometers), occurred at 2:30 p.m. EDT on March 27.

Mission planners designed this flyby for Cassini’s ion and neutral mass spectrometer, which attempted to “taste” particles from the jets. NASA says that scientists will use the data to learn more about the composition, density and variability of the plume. In addition, the composite infrared spectrometer was looking for hot spots on Enceladus, and the imaging cameras were snapping pictures.

Cassini buzzes low over Enceladus. Simulated view of what it would actually look like based real trajectory data, generated with NASA's Eyes on the Solar System software.
Cassini buzzes low over Enceladus. Simulated view of what it would actually look like based real trajectory data, generated with NASA's Eyes on the Solar System software. Click the image to see video of what it would be like to fly with Cassini in real time.

Click here to run the above simulation yourself at Eyes on the Solar System. This amazing web site uses real data and images from a variety of spacecraft to let you explore all the planets in 3D, throughout time, and in real time.

UPDATE – March 28:

The images are starting to come down from Saturn:

Saturn's moon Enceladus and its ice geysers, as seen yesterday. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI
Saturn's moon Enceladus and its ice geysers, as seen yesterday. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI
A closer view of the jets. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI
A closer view of the jets. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI
The fissured surface of Enceladus. A liquid ocean may lie underneath. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI
The fissured surface of Enceladus. A liquid ocean may lie underneath. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

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