Saturn probe snaps close-up of mystery moon

Image: Enceladus north polar region
This mosaic image is the highest-resolution view yet obtained of the north polar region of Enceladus, one of Saturn's moons. The picture reveals old craters as well as ridged terrain.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The international Cassini spacecraft collected science data on mysterious geysers spewing from Saturn’s moon Enceladus and recorded new images of its surface during a close flyby, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said Thursday.

The pass Wednesday brought Cassini as close as 30 miles (50 kilometers) to the surface of the moon. It went through the icy geysers at 32,000 mph (51,200 kilometers per hour) and an altitude of 120 miles (200 kilometers), the lab said.

It’s hoped that instrument data on density, size, composition and speed of plume particles will provide clues to whether there’s a water ocean or organics inside the frozen moon. The geysers spew water vapor from fractures in the moon’s south pole.

New pictures taken by Cassini show the surface of the north polar region is much older than the southern hemisphere and is pitted with craters, the lab said.

Cassini imaging scientist Carolyn Porco said the images provide an important comparison for “working out the moon’s obviously complex geological history.”

Porco, of the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo., said the next big step will be getting detailed images of the surface sources of the plumes during a low-altitude flyby this summer.

The lab said that during Wednesday’s flyby, one of Cassini’s instruments, the Cosmic Dust Analyzer, had an unexplained software problem that prevented it from collecting data during closest approach, but it did collect data before and after. Other instruments functioned properly, it said.