The first raw images have made it back to Earth from the Cassini spacecraft's deepest dive ever into a jet on Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus.
On Wednesday, Cassini swooped low over the small moon’s south pole, where dozens of geysers are continually hurling salty water into space. Those geysers are powered by a global ocean buried beneath the moon’s icy crust—an ocean that’s considered one of the prime places to look for life beyond Earth.
The south pole flyover, which brought Cassini to within 30 miles of the moon’s surface, lasted for all of 30 seconds. During that time, the spacecraft flew through one of the Enceladian plumes and collected samples of the geyser-water, which scientists already know contains salt and organic compounds.
Over the coming weeks, the team will study the plume’s composition and try to determine whether the moon’s seafloor is home to hydrothermal vents, which could provide an energy source for alien lifeforms.
But that’s not all. During the encounter, Cassini furiously snapped photos of the enigmatic little moon. We’ve gathered some of the raw, unprocessed images in this gallery, which includes a view of Enceladus hanging in front of Saturn’s rings, an image of the backlit geysers, and an extreme close-up of the moon’s surface.
The south pole of Enceladus has been in the dark for about six years, so any images we see of the fractured, erupting surface will be lit only by Saturnshine, the sunlight reflected off the planet and its rings.
In December, Cassini will fly near Enceladus again. From about 3,100 miles away, it will measure the moon’s true temperature and give scientists a better idea of the inner workings of the moon.
The December flyby will be Cassini’s last encounter with Enceladus before its mission ends with a fatal plunge into Saturn in 2017. With no future missions to the giant ringed planet on the horizon, it could be our final chance to learn more about this potentially life-friendly moon.