Deep Dive into Enceladus' Plume
The flyby is geared primarily towards sampling the plume of Enceladus.
We'll fly by at roughly an altitude of 30 miles, which is approximately the distance between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore.
We go screaming by Enceladus at speeds in excess of 19,000 miles per hour. We're flying deep. The deepest we've ever been through this plume and these instruments will be sensing the gases and we'll be looking at the particles that make up this plume.
Cassini was never designed to look for life in the Enceladus ocean but it does have powerful instruments that can be used to look for habitability. So, we're looking for the conditions suitable for life.
Now, Enceladus is a tiny moon but it's really intriguing. It's got this plume that is shooting out from its south pole.
The plume is mostly comprised of water, water ice, that get's frozen when it's ejected into space. Most of these particles are coming from these four major fractures that we call tiger stripes.
Life needs three things, right? It needs water. It needs chemistry and it needs energy.
And right now, some of these lines of evidence are telling us that Enceladus has these three things.
We see some salts, but most importantly, we see organic molecules. Things like methane. We also see CO2, ammonia. One of the things that Cassini can look for is molecular hydrogen. This is the smallest molecule that exists in the universe. It's two hydrogens bonded together.
This molecule can tell us about things like hydrothermal activity going on in the ocean of Enceladus and this is very important as we start to answer that ultimate question of - is there really life on Enceladus?