A NASA spacecraft just took a record-breaking dive through an extraterrestrial water plume

Enceladus plumeYouTube/NASAA composite image showing Enceladus’ watery plume.

A nuclear-powered spacecraft has just pulled off a strafing manoeuvre to “sniff” the vast subsurface ocean of Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus, says NASA.

The Cassini spacecraft’s sampling is a particularly exciting event because scientists think Enceladus is, aside from Earth, the most likely world in the solar system that’s capable of supporting life — we just haven’t gotten a close enough look yet.

Cassini “completed its deepest-ever dive through the icy plume of Enceladus” around 11:22 a.m. on October 28, according to a NASA release. “Images are anticipated in the next 24 to 48 hours.”

Cassini has studied Saturn and its moons since 2004. During that time, the spacecraft discovered a giant plume that spouts water vapour, ice, and other chemicals from Enceladus’ south pole. This watery plume likely come from a vast salty ocean beneath the world’s frozen crust.

Scientists already know the plume contains organic material — the building blocks of life. They also suspect the ocean it comes from is hydrothermally active. This would make Enceladus even more likely to support alien microbes, since that would keep the water warm and create mineral nutrients.

On Wednesday, Cassini flew just 30 miles above Enceladus and barreled through the moon’s plume at 19,000 mph. During its flyby, Cassini used gas and dust sensors to “sniff” the plume:

This was the lowest pass through the plume that Cassini has ever made, according to NASA. And while the robot wasn’t capable of directly detecting signs of life, scientists expect to gain a lot of insight from the flyby.

Cassini zoomed so close to the surface, it may have detected heavier organic molecules than it did during previous, higher passes through the plume. This could tell planetary scientists a lot more about the plume’s chemistry, help verify whether or not the ocean is hydrothermally active, and offer clues as to how a stream of water vapour and ice could break through the moon’s miles-thick frozen crust.

All of these insights will ultimately tell us more about the icy world’s potential to harbour life.

We should see the first images from the flyby Thursday or Friday, but the rest of the data will take a few weeks to get back to Earth.

You can watch NASA’s preview of the mission below:

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