Enceladus Flyby Results

Oh, of course the results aren’t in yet. It’s far too early. But just to wet our whistle, the science team for Cassini held a press conference yesterday (Wed., Mar. 26) to let us know what the early look-see at the data revealed. Here’s one of the big findings.

My first peek at the uncalibrated data the next day, on Thursday afternoon, was already thrilling – the glow of the tiger stripes was visible not just at the usual 9 – 16 micron wavelength range where we’d seen them before, but at wavelengths as short as 7 microns. Shorter wavelengths mean hotter temperatures (in the same way that white-hot is hotter than red-hot), so it looked like the fractures might be warmer than we had thought.

Minus 135 degrees F. Um-Um-UmUm-Ummmm. Toasty. And actually, it is! At least, it tells us that there’s plenty of warm spots below the surface, perhaps warm enough to… nah!

Well, maybe. The second big result, which you probably all heard about, was that Cassini detected the presence of organic compounds in the plumes of Enceladus. Lots of ‘em. 20 times more than expected.”

A completely unexpected surprise is that the chemistry of Enceladus, what’s coming out from inside, resembles that of a comet,” said Hunter Waite, principal investigator for the Cassini Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “To have primordial material coming out from inside a Saturn moon raises many questions on the formation of the Saturn system.”

“Enceladus is by no means a comet. Comets have tails and orbit the sun, and Enceladus’ activity is powered by internal heat while comet activity is powered by sunlight. Enceladus’ brew is like carbonated water with an essence of natural gas,” said Waite.

The Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer saw a much higher density of volatile gases, water vapor, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, as well as organic materials, some 20 times denser than expected. This dramatic increase in density was evident as the spacecraft flew over the area of the plumes.

So, let’s see. Water? Check. Heat? Check. Appropriate chemistry? Check-check. Life?

Not yet. We’d have to touch down, get below the surface, and almost have it tap us on the shoulder. But so far, nothing Cassini has found rules out such a discovery.

Major hat tip to Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy.

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