NASA’s Cassini probe is entering the final leg of its mission. Launched in 2004, the probe has helped NASA scientists get an up close view of Saturn. Now, the probe will skim just 50 kilometers off of Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons.
NASA isn’t conducting this “close encounter” for the heck of it. Instead, scientists are looking to examine jets of water that are spurting out of the south pole of the moon. Cassini doesn’t need a drink, per se, but scientists want to see if they can find compelling evidence of the possibility of life outside of Earth.
Enceladus is considered by many to be the most likely spot for alien life, at least within the solar system.
The moon is considered a prime spot for life because scientists are confident that oceans of liquid water flow beneath its icy crust. These scientists also believe that conditions in the planet’s vast ocean may be conductive to life.
Now, the Cassini probe will be looking to take a plunge into the tiger stripe plumes of water that are gushing out of the planet’s south pole. The probe will be looking to detect molecular hydrogen, which would suggest that hot vents exist on the ocean floor.
The probe has previously examined jets of water, and found salt and organic compounds, but the current mission should allow for the most complete sampling yet.
Given that life on Earth has been found to survive around such hot vents miles under the ocean, this could suggest that life could exist on Saturn’s moon as well. These vents are important because they provide the needed input of energy necessary for living organisms.
Detecting the hydrogen emissions are essential because it will help researchers understand how much hydrothermal activity is occurring on the ocean’s floor.
Scientists will be able to examine the data sent back by Cassini in about a week. They will likely only get one shot at this. After passing near the moon’s surface, the probe will head further out into Saturn’s orbit to study the gas giant itself.
Sometime in 2017 the probe’s fuel will run out and it will plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere, eventually being crushed by the gas giant’s immense gravity. This will end the probe’s mission, which started in 2004.