In one of NASA's most successful missions this side of the Mars Rovers, the Cassini spacecraft is still haunting the neighborhood of Saturn. Having finished the primary stage of it's expected life, the craft now moves into its "extended" mission phase. (Basically they've made it as far and as long as they initially projected it would go for the cost, and now they're on "bonus" time.) Feeling a bit frisky, Cassini's handlers are going to pull off some fancy flying and actually dive the craft through a water plume errupting from one of Saturn's moons.
PASADENA, Calif. - NASA's Cassini spacecraft will make an unprecedented "in your face" flyby of Saturn's moon Enceladus on Wed., March 12.
The spacecraft, orchestrating its closest approach to date, will skirt along the edges of huge Old-Faithful-like geysers erupting from giant fractures on the south pole of Enceladus. Cassini will sample scientifically valuable water-ice, dust and gas in the plume.
The source of the geysers is of great interest to scientists who think liquid water, perhaps even an ocean, may exist in the area. While flying through the edge of the plumes, Cassini will be approximately 200 kilometers (120 miles) from the surface. At closest approach to Enceladus, Cassini will be only 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the moon.
Enceladus is of great interest to scientists, as they suspect that there is a vast body of water warm enough to support life under its surface. In fact, there are plans on the table for a future probe that will attempt to drill a hole down through the ice and release a miniature submarine to swim around and take pictures and samples. If there is other life in our solar system, Enceladus is one of the best bets for a place to find it.