WATCH LIVE: NASA's Cassini spacecraft ends its 20-year run around Saturn

This story first appeared on FiveThirtyEight and is reprinted with permission.

Simply six months after the Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn, its cameras caught one thing spectacular. It was Jan. sixteen, 2005, and Cassini was zipping previous Enceladus, a brilliant, tiny moon simply 313 miles in diameter. Cassini noticed a fuzzy peak, like a tuft of hair standing up. It was a vapor plume, and it meant the little moon was spurting one thing into area.


As Cassini flew round Enceladus, scientists turned the spacecraft’s suite of devices and sensors to the obvious geyser and found that it was water ice. “To truly see this plume of water vapor and water ice particles popping out of the south pole of a moon that’s solely 300 miles throughout was completely astonishing,” stated Linda Spilker, Cassini challenge scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

As Cassini prepares to finish its 20-yr run with a demise dive into Saturn on Friday, the spacecraft’s 20 years of photographs have made the Saturn system one of the crucial recognizable, most acquainted and but most breathtakingly mysterious locations within the photo voltaic system. Footage like these of the icy geyser might be Cassini’s lasting legacy.

Photographs from Cassini led to the invention of a system of icy geysers on Enceladus, considered one of Saturn’s sixty two recognized moons. (NASA)

The photographs have been value one other three visits. Engineers made this film from one other flyby that November.

Later, Cassini flew immediately by means of the plume and located proof of a salty international ocean filled with hydrothermal exercise, constructing blocks of potential life. This discovery cemented Enceladus as among the best locations inside our photo voltaic system to search for life outdoors of Earth – sorry, Mars. It was one of the crucial sensational findings in current area historical past, and positively certainly one of Cassini’s highlights. And it occurred not due to arduous-to-pronounce area know-how, however due to a snapshot.

Fairly area photographs might captivate the general public, however they are not the spine of recent astronomy. Given the arduous limits on weight and measurement that area journey imposes, many scientists would somewhat prioritize devices like mass spectrometers, that are chemistry workhorses, or radiometers and magnetometers, which measure radiation and magnetic fields. With these instruments, astronomers can tease aside fingerprints of particular person chemical compounds and assemble detailed simulations of how planets and moons work. Cameras are sometimes an afterthought, actually.

Take the Juno…

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