Environment & Science

Saturn's moon Enceladus — a candidate for alien life — to get a close shave from NASA probe

Scientists recently confirmed Saturn's moon Enceladus has a sea of water below its icy surface. Could it also contain life?
Scientists recently confirmed Saturn's moon Enceladus has a sea of water below its icy surface. Could it also contain life?
NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

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This month, NASA’s Cassini probe will be getting up close-up and personal with Saturn’s moon Enceladus.
 
Two flybys are planned for October, one of which will skim a mere 30 miles above the surface.

Scientists hoping to find life outside of Earth think Enceladus is a good candidate because it has a liquid ocean under its frozen surface and hydrothermal vents which could create conditions suitable for some organisms.

The first flyby is scheduled for its closest approach of 1,142 miles at 3:41 a.m. Pacific time on Wednesday, Oct. 14.

The probe will fly above Enceladus' north pole, a region that up until now has been mostly shrouded in seasonal darkness. It takes around 7 years for seasons to change on Enceladus due to its distance from the sun.

Later, on October 28th, Cassini will travel just 30 miles above the moon's south pole where jets of icy water shoot out from the subsurface ocean.

Project scientist Linda Spilker from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory said if there was life on Enceladus, those plumes might contain evidence.
 
"Unfortunately Cassini doesn’t have any life detection instruments," she explained.

However, the probe will be able to gather data on other materials and Spilker said these readings can help inform future missions.

"So we’ll just be taking the data, putting it together and leaving it for a follow on mission that would be basically built to look for life."

This won't be the closest approach of Enceladus, but it will be the deepest dive into these intriguing plumes.

Later in December, Cassini will make it's final pass of the moon from an altitude of 3,106 miles.

Then, the probe will dedicate itself to studying Saturn and its rings.