Thursday, March 13, 2008

Space Probe Makes Daring Maneuver in Search of Life

NASA's Cassini space probe has just engaged in a dramatic maneuver over one of Saturn's most fascinating moons, Enceladus. Zipping just 30 miles above the surface at 32,000 miles per hour, Cassini passed through a plume of debris shooting from fissure's in the moon's south pole.

(Artist Rendering Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Why take such a risk? Enceladus happens to have some of the building blocks of life, as Cassini mission scientists were amazed to discover.

Back in 2005, Pound360 stumbled upon a spectacular podcast of a presentation by Cassini mission scientist Carolyn Porco (
get the podcast here at IT Conversations). In the speech, she described how Cassini discovered geologic activity, water ice, warmth and organic material on Enceladus. One of the most intriguing discoveries was that the southern pole was warm and scattered with organic material.

With the near-moon flyby which occurred yesterday, scientists hope to examine particles in the atmosphere around the south pole where cracks in the moon's icy surface are shooting steam and dust into space. They already know that 90 percent of the south pole's plume is water vapor,
according to a Time report. Now, the idea is to identify the other 10 percent. Organic compounds like carbon dioxide and methane are already known to be present in the area. Could there be "larger carbon compounds" in the unknown 10 percent?

At a minimum (and that would be a very successful minimum), scientists want to get a handle on Enceladus' makeup. Evidence from Cassini's flyby may indicate whether or not liquid water exists beneath the Enceladus' icy surface.




(Artist Rendering Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech)

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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.