NASA to directly sample alien ocean

Added by on October 26, 2015

NASA's Cassini orbiter will take direct measurements of a global ocean on Saturn's moon Enceladus on Wednesady.

NASA’s Cassini orbiter will take direct measurements of a global ocean on Saturn’s moon Enceladus on Wednesday.

NASA on Tuesday released the details of a mission to detect possible signs of life on a moon orbiting Saturn. The mission is scheduled to take place on Wednesday at 4 p.m. GMT/UT by its Cassini orbiter, which has been studying Saturn since 2004.

The mission will carry the Cassini spacecraft through a plume of liquid, discovered in 2005, that’s being released by Saturn’s sixth largest moon, Enceladus. The liquid is being released at the moon’s south pole, possibly through a crack in the moon’s icy surface. It’s thought that a global ocean exists under the ice. This mission will perform direct measurements of the makeup of the liquid – making this a first for this type of mission.

Among the questions scientists have is whether moon’s global ocean has the right mixture of chemicals and energy to create conditions to support possibly simple forms of life.

Scientists also hope to answer a long-standing question about the nature of the plume: whether it’s a curtain similar to steam or whether it’s made up of discrete jets of material. The answer will shed light on the type of interaction the underlying ocean has with the surface ice.

Earl Maize, Cassini Project Manager, said the flyby will be at 19,000 miles per hour at a height of 30 miles above the moon’s surface. The flyby through the plumes will be fast – lasting just 10s of seconds.

About two hours before the flyby, said Maize, Cassini will turn its instruments into a favorable position to take the measurements. Imaging will occur from the beginning of the flyby through to the end. Saturn will provide ambient lighting, much like our full moon does at night.

Maize added that some photos and measurements are likely to be available by Friday – however, Cassini will relay a signal back to earth about six hours after the flyby to confirm that it is still operational.

Curt Niebur, Cassini Program Scientist, commented that finding conditions for life on Enceladus would fundamentally change our understanding of the possibility of life within the universe.

“If we find the right conditions for life in our solar system two times (earth and possibly Enceladus), that could change the possibility for life elsewhere in the universe by several orders of magnitude,” said Neibur.