As Earth humans begin to seriously consider sending missions to icy worlds like Europa and Enceladus, one of the necessary concerns has to be protection of the environment where such a mission would land. It would be a shame to arrive on a fascinating alien world only to immediately seed it with Earth microbes, carelessly infecting the local ecosystem, ruining the unique scientific opportunity and possibly incurring the wrath of the local alien ruler.
The Cassini spacecraft has been busy over this past week, making close flybys of both Enceladus and and Tethys, two of Saturn’s moons. And we’re not using “close” as a relative term here. Cassini skimmed Enceladus in such proximity that it was literally able to taste the plume of water ice, vapor, and other organic compounds spewing from the moon’s south polar region.
Aside from ancient Mars, the moons of Saturn might be one of the best places to look for life outside this planet. The methane lakes of Titan are promising places, but so are the spewing plumes of ice on Enceladus — and the latter would be an easy one to check, as it turns out.
Today in pretty space pics, Cassini proves once again that it’s the spacecraft that just keeps on giving. Its mission was supposed to end in 2008 but has twice been extended, most recently out to 2017. That’s fine with us, since it keeps sending back pics like these from its wide orbit around arguably the solar system’s second-coolest planet. Represented here: Saturn’s signature rings and five of its more than 60 natural satellites--Janus, Pandora, Enceladus, Mimas and Rhea (from left to right).
Fourteen years ago, astronomers studying Saturn via ESA’s Infrared Space Observatory discovered a mysterious supply of gaseous water in Saturn’s upper atmosphere. Now, ESA’s Herschel observatory has figured out exactly where that water is coming from: Saturn’s moon Enceladus, which spews water onto its host planet via huge water jets emanating from its southern polar region.
NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day usually serves up a stunning daily image of the cosmos, but today’s image is particularly spectacular because it’s not a single image at all, but rather a stream of Cassini images stitched into a sweeping video of a journey through Saturn’s neighborhood. The resulting video creates a Cassini’s-eye-view sensation, mimicking what it might feel like to fly a spacecraft around Saturn and its satellites.
Winter has stymied a Russian-led effort to drill into an Antarctic lake that has been buried for 14 million years, scientists said this week. Just 96 feet short of their goal, scientists had to put their tools away and wait out the rapidly approaching Antarctic winter. But they don't want to lose the progress they've made so far, so they're pouring kerosene down the borehole to keep it from freezing.
An oxygen-rich lake, unreachable for the past 14 million years and buried beneath a thick sheet of ice, is about to be penetrated by a drill bit from a faraway place. It’s possible that special life forms have adapted to live in this extreme environment, and scientists hope to learn more once they can analyze water samples.
NASA's search for extraterrestrial life could result in missions such as a balloon or boat-like capsule on Titan, or even a complex three-part Mars mission to return a Martian sample to Earth. Until then, scientists have focused attention on both Earth and Mars regions which could hold organic materials or microfossils.
Extraterrestrial life hunters gathered this week near Houston at what amounts to a biennial Woodstock for astrobiologists, and a NASA teleconference today gave a glimpse into the proceedings. Some of the best and the brightest shared their latest findings and discussed future missions to search for signs of life on Mars, Europa and other exotic solar system destinations.
Cassini arrived in Saturn's neighborhood in 2004 for a four-year mission, but it performed so well and remained in such good shape, its mission was extended for two more years. In that time it's made countless discoveries, generated a wealth of scientific data and spawned well over 1,000 academic papers. It's also burned three quarters of its fuel.
For the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab mission designers tasked with extending Cassini's mission for an extra seven years, the project became a convoluted whirl of math and politics. Here, The New York Times explains the orbital mechanics of the new Cassini mission, which has to more than double the length of the mission using just a quarter of the craft's original propellant, all while appeasing opposing scientific interests.