After being in space since its launch back in 1997, the Cassini probe starts its journey towards Saturn’s outer rings, making one last drive-by around the moon of Enceladus, which has been studied by the probe for the past decade. Cassini will eventually move closer and closer to Saturn before it will crash on the planet’s surface.
The space probe has been studying the moon’s icy surface and temperature, sending back information to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, since 2004. This last journey around Enceladus will be made at the fairly close distance of roughly 3.100 miles, analyzing the internal temperature of the moon in order to convey a more conclusive map of its geological processes.
Even if Cassini and Enceladus will part ways, this does not mean that the probe will lose sight of the moon. By using its Composite Infrared Spectrometer, the spacecraft will observe carefully the moon’s south pole. The aforementioned distance between the two is considered by astronomers as a sweet-spot, allowing the probe to get a better picture of Enceladus internal temperature, as well as the structure of the southern region.
This journey has been decided upon due to the fact that Saturn, along with its moons, will enter its winter period which lasts for a couple of years. Even if Cassini will eventually crash on the surface of the planet at the estimated date of September 2017, the probe will not halt its observations at any point until then. This will allow scientists and researchers to gain a much clearer view of the planet, as well as its moons, along the way.
This final victory lap of Cassini ends one of the most prolific journeys a spacecraft has ever made in our history. Since its launch, the probe managed to visit Jupiter, Venus, and an asteroid. Its final stop in Saturn’s orbit made possible the discovery of Saturn’s plethora of moons, 62 in total, with 53 of them currently possessing names. Cassini has also aided in confirming Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity.
The importance of Enceladus stemmed from the fact that it is an ocean-bearing moon. Beneath its cold and icy surface, it is generally believed that immense oceans of water are constantly flowing, near the south pole region. This is not the only moon of this type in Saturn’s orbit, with Titan having the utmost importance. It is fairly similar to our own Earth, possessing a nitrogen-rich atmosphere and several hydrocarbon lakes (hydrocarbon is found on Earth in the form of crude oil) as well as some dry river networks. It is the only celestial body apart from our planet that has stable liquid pockets across its surface.
Even if the Cassini probe starts its journey towards Saturn’s outer rings, signaling the probe’s retirement, this event should not be looked upon with sadness. Its journey across space and the plethora of information sent back to Earth have helped the human civilization discover even more things in regards to our solar system, as well as the Universe.