Saturn is probably the most photogenic member of the Solar System. And the highly successful joint NASA/ESA mission Cassini has sent home many splendid images of the ringed planet and its satellites.
But the latest picture released by the Cassini team is particularly stunning, showing us a beautiful crescent view of the moon Enceladus with a section of the famous rings running like a cosmic highway just above it.
And though they do not show clearly here, jets of spray from Enceladus’s ice volcanoes are faintly visible in the orginal around the southern cusp of the crescent. The spray is what has formed Saturn’s E-ring.
The image was taken by Cassini from its orbit around our second largest planet on January 4 at a distance of 291,000 km (181,000 miles) from geologically-active Enceladus.
The robotic orbiter was looking down on the northern, sunlit side of the rings, which are made up of a myriad of fragments of ice and dust encircling Saturn. The picture was taken with Cassini’s narrow-angle camera, one of two cameras on the probe which has been orbiting Saturn since 2004.
Enceladus, discovered by William Herschel in 1789, is 504km in diameter (313 miles). It is a fascinating world for planetary scientists because study of the icy jets from fissures dubbed “tiger stripes” suggests that a large ocean lies beneath its surface.
Pevious flights by Cassini directly through the spray resulted in the detection of negatively-charged water molecules which are found on Earth as short-lived indicators of moving water such as in waterfalls or ocean waves.
Because other essentials for life are also present, in the form of carbon and a source of heat from the energy generated by Saturn’s tidal pull, it means that the underground sea is a place to look for possible alien lifeforms.
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