Spacecraft Makes Deepest Dive Yet Through Alien Geyser

Close encounters of the cryovolcano kind, in photos

The geysers on Saturn's moon Enceladus are one of the most intriguing features in our solar system. Spouting 125 miles high, these cryovolcanic plumes may provide insight into the giant ocean inside the icy moon--as well as any organisms that may inhabit it.

On Wednesday, the Cassini spacecraft made its deepest pass through Enceladus' icy spray.

Scientists hope that by collecting samples from lower parts of the plumes, the spacecraft might be able to detect heavier, more complex compounds that could shed light on whether the inner ocean is capable of supporting life. Cassini was also searching for hydrogen, which could indicate whether the ocean floor is active and infusing life-sustaining energy into the ocean.

Now the spacecraft has sent back images from its close encounter--the closest a manmade spacecraft has ever come to the source of the plumes, or will come anytime in the near future. The images are still unprocessed, but they're pretty cool, and they'll help provide a more detailed understanding of the small moon.

"Cassini's stunning images are providing us a quick look at Enceladus from this ultra-close flyby, but some of the most exciting science is yet to come," said Linda Spilker, the mission's project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

So, what did Cassini find? Unfortunately we'll have to wait at least a few weeks for the team to analyze the data from the spacecraft's gas- and dust-collecting instruments. The researchers plan to publish the findings in a peer-reviewed journal before announcing them to the public.

Unprocessed view of Enceladus

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Enceladus' geysers

The plumes arise from Enceladus' south pole, which is currently in shadow.NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Closeup of Enceladus' surface

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Unprocessed view of Enceladus

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

This view includes part of Saturn's rings

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute