Saturn moon Enceladus's north pole captured in stunning detail
Cassini will dive through icy spray of Enceladus's south pole on Oct. 28
NASA's Cassini spacecraft has captured closeups of the north pole of Enceladus, a Saturn moon that spews icy geysers from an ocean beneath its icy crust.
The images show glacier-like terrain full of craters and striped with parallel, crevasse-like cracks, some bigger and some very fine.
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The images were captured on Thursday, when the spacecraft passed within 1,839 kilometres of Enceladus's north pole.
It will make a much closer pass on Oct. 28, when it will dive through the sprays of icy water spewing from the moon's southern polar region, coming within just 49 kilometres of the surface. Scientists are hoping the close encounter will provide information about the chemistry of the ocean under Enceladus's icy crust and how much hydrothermal heating is going on in that underground ocean. That could provide more information about Enceladus's potential to support microbial life.
Enceladus is Saturn's sixth largest moon and about 500 kilometres in diameter – less than a sixth the width of our own moon.
Cassini, designed to study Saturn and its moons, was launched in 1997. It arrived and entered orbit around Saturn in 2004.
It first witnessed icy jets spraying from Enceladus's south pole in 2005.
More recent research suggested there are hot springs bubbling on the floor of Enceladus's ocean – possibly similar to the hydrothermal vents on Earth's ocean floor that support a rich variety of life far from sunlight, the energy source that powers most other life on Earth.