Friday, March 14, 2008

Malfunction 'Undermines' Cassini's Bold Maneuver

Yesterday Pound360 was thrilled to discuss the Cassini space probe's low-orbit maneuver above Enceladus, one of Saturn's 60 moons. The significance of this maneuver, in fact the Cassini mission in general, revolves around one of the biggest surprises in our recent exploration of the solar system, that Enceladus has the building blocks of life.

In 2005, Cassini mission scientists were surprised to find the building blocks of life on Enceladus: geologic activity, water ice, warmth and some organic matter like carbon dioxide and methane. Many of these features are concentrated at the south pole of the moon where plumes of material are streaming from deep cracks in the moon's icy surface.

To get a better idea of what's going on down there -- and figure out what exactly is in that plume (the info may tell us if there's liquid water beneath the surface) -- Cassini cut through the plume, swooping within 30 miles of the moon's icy surface. But unfortunately there was a bit of a problem.

What NASA calls "an unexplained software hiccup" disabled Cassini's particle-sensing instruments as it passed through the Enceladus plume,
reports Reuters.

The malfunction left Cassini mission control baffled and frustrated. "Expressing disappointment," one mission leader told Reuters, "We had tested that software very carefully. We don't know why it didn't work properly."

Let me guess, you went with a PC instead of a Mac?

Cassini's flyby wasn't a total loss. Other instruments onboard the craft, including the ion and neutral mass spectrometer were functioning. Also, there will be other flybys. According to the Cassini mission calendar, the probe will return to Enceladus in August and October this year.

In the meantime, Cassini is moving on to explore Saturn's rings and another moon, Titan.

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I started pound360 to channel my obsession with vitamins, running and the five senses. Eventually, I got bored focusing on all that stuff, so I came back from a one month hiatus in May of 2007 (one year after launching Pound360) and broadened my mumblings here to include all science.