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Saturn's moon Enceladus has a 'snowman' near its north pole

NASA's Cassini spacecraft cozies up to Enceladus and returns a set of lovely ice-packed images of its cratered and fractured northern region.

Craters and fractures decorate Enceladus' north pole. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

It's easy to get lost in the hubbub of Saturn's moons. The ringed planet has a collection of over 60 satellites, and big fancy moons like Titan and Dione attract a lot of attention.

But NASA isn't overlooking some of the fascinating smaller moons. Enceladus has earned its moment in the spotlight with a series of dramatic Cassini spacecraft flybys that started on Wednesday.

Enceladus the moon is almost as dramatic as its namesake, one of the giants from Greek mythology. The snow-white surface is pockmarked with craters and a series of fractures. Researchers had questioned how far the fractures extended across the moon. They now have an answer after Cassini's Wednesday flyby showed the fractures wrinkled into the satellite's icy surface in the region of the north pole.

"The northern regions are crisscrossed by a spidery network of gossamer-thin cracks that slice through the craters," said Cassini imaging team member Paul Helfenstein. "These thin cracks are ubiquitous on Enceladus, and now we see that they extend across the northern terrains as well."

One image from the flyby is particularly entertaining. It shows a series of three craters in a formation that makes them look like a snowman carved onto the moon.

Cassini got as close as 1,142 miles (1,839 kilometers) from the moon on Wednesday, but it will make the daredevil move of coming within just 30 miles (49 kilometers) of the south-pole area on its next flyby scheduled for October 28.

Researchers believe Enceladus has a subsurface ocean, which may be responsible for plumes of spray radiating from the south pole. The Cassini encounter will hopefully provide details on the chemical makeup of the ocean. A final flyby will take place on December 19 with the goal of measuring the heat from the interior. This means we can look forward to more fascinating images to fill out our Enceladus glamour-shot portfolio.