This is a pretty exciting week for space exploration. While the Phoenix lander managed to image a single particle of Martian dust with its atomic force microscope and Hubble had orbited Earth more than 100,000 times, Cassini made a very close flyby of Enceladus, a moon of Saturn.
And one of the results from the Enceladus flyby is that Cassini managed to pinpoint the source of the incredible water geysers of Enceladus. They're deep cracks on the surface of the moon with icy debris all round them. I wonder what it would have looked like at ground zero when the geysers erupted?
Cassini has started to send back pictures from its close flyby of Enceladus, an icy moon of Saturn. The surface of the moon looks rather wrinkly. Perhaps this is because of all the water volcanos on the planet. It's mind-boggling to think that all of that surface is littered with water ice.
Cassini has just made its closest approach to Enceladus according to its tweets. It closed to a distance of 50 kilometers, or 30 miles, from the surface of Enceladus. Cassini still needs to send the data it collected back to Earth, which it should start sending at about 9PM Pacific time today. However, they say some of the best images of Enceladus were taken after Cassini made its closest approach, where it took photographs looking back at the moon as it flew away. These images won't arrive at Earth until tomorrow.
NASA has an entire blog dedicated to this single flyby, so head over there to get the nitty gritty details.
While a direct and close-up observation of water on Mars is exciting, we already knew about the existence of water on Mars for quite awhile. But the solar system can still throw us big surprises. One might think that the planet Mercury would not have any water, being so close to the Sun so that any water would have been blasted away by the solar wind. But when the MESSENGER spacecraft made its initial flyby of Mercury this January, water was exactly what it detected in its atmosphere.
MESSENGER is to orbit Mercury starting from 2011, but to save fuel it approaches Mercury numerous times to reduce its speed using Mercury's gravitational pull. During its flyby in January, it flew through Mercury's thin atmosphere and collected particles from the atmosphere. While it found the expected amount of elements such as sodium, potassium, and calcium, it also found significant amounts of water among the particles, which was a complete surprise.
The MESSENGER spacecraft has already made several big discoveries in just a single flyby this January, the others being the fact that volcanism is responsible for the smooth plains of Mercury and that many of the planet's features are due to its shrinking iron core. With just one flyby resulting in significant scientific results, including the unexpected detection of water in Mercury's atmosphere, I think we can look forward to when MESSENGER really starts its mission in 2011 when it goes into orbit around the planet. Even bigger surprises are sure to come.
The image of the surface of Mercury as MESSENGER receded from the planet in its January 2008 flyby is courtesy of NASA.