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NASA's Enceladus flyby: Cassini to dive through icy spray of Saturn's moon

The warm interior ocean of this moon of Saturn is bursting through its surface and the spacecraft plans to dive-bomb the satellite for a sip.

Icy jets seen spurting from Enceladus' surface NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Saturn's moon Enceladus has to compete for attention with Titan and its potential for surfing methane waves, not to mention its circling Jupiter. But NASA's Cassini spacecraft plans to give neglected Enceladus a new close-up over the next few months with three flybys, the first of which started Wednesday morning.

This week's cruise past the northern pole of the Saturnian moon from a distance of 1,142 miles will give scientists a chance to see if icy plumes like those seen earlier at the south pole are active on the "top" of the satellite during its current northern summer. But the real excitement comes later this month when Cassini will circle back and pass within just 30 miles of the south polar region, actually flying through the spray of the plume.

The hope is that the data collected will help in unlocking more of the secrets that lie encased -- but clearly leaking -- beneath Enceladus' frigid outer shell.

Not only is the interior of the moon believed to include a global subsurface ocean, but it may also be heated by some sort of internal geological source that makes it warm enough to support life. That great hidden sea seems to be shooting through the surface in large sheets, so why not take a (robotic) gulp to perhaps see what's in it?

"The global nature of Enceladus' ocean and the inference that hydrothermal systems might exist at the ocean's base strengthen the case that this small moon of Saturn may have environments similar to those at the bottom of our own ocean," Jonathan Lunine, an interdisciplinary scientist on the Cassini mission at Cornell University, said in a NASA statement. "It is therefore very tempting to imagine that life could exist in such a habitable realm, a billion miles from our home."

This month's flyby of Enceladus and a third in December from a higher altitude will be the last times Cassini will be close to this moon. The craft plans to head back toward Saturn to end its 20-year mission with a bang (or more likely a sudden implosion) in the giant planet's atmosphere.