Strapping in for the Ride

Geraint JonesGeraint Jones
Scientist on the Cassini Plasma Spectrometer (bio)

Cassini’s next white-knuckle Enceladus flyby is quickly approaching, and the excitement is building for those of us working on the Cassini Plasma Spectrometer, CAPS. This instrument team is headed by Dave Young at the Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio, but the team members work in several countries. This includes the UK, where several of us on CAPS work at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory—part of University College London that’s located in the countryside to the south of the city.

CAPS is part of Cassini’s suite of magnetospheric and plasma science, or MAPS experiments. With these, the spacecraft can sense its immediate environment: the gases, plasma, electromagnetic fields, and dust that can tell us a huge amount about the Saturn system.

artist concept of Enceladus flybyThe results from each of this year’s Enceladus flybys has a different flavor. The main reason for this is that not all instruments can be pointed in their respective “best” directions at once, and the flybys are so brief that there’s no time to turn Cassini, so every instrument gets a good look or samples the particles they want to… it’s a bit like deciding who gets the window and aisle seats! Luckily, because we’ve got several flybys, the teams can take it in turns to get the best data out of their respective experiments… this time, as it was back on March 12th, the MAPS instrument teams are in their favorite seats.

So what are the CAPS team going to be looking at during this daring dive? Enceladus is sitting in a flow of plasma—a mix of ions and electrons that’s trapped around Saturn by the planet’s magnetic field.  We expect Cassini to briefly enter a wake where this magnetospheric plasma can’t penetrate, a “shadowed” region where CAPS should sense a big drop in the density of the plasma. Once past closest approach, only 25 kilometers, or 15.5 miles, from Enceladus’ surface, Cassini will spend a few minutes actually inside the plume of gas and ice particles being thrown out by the moon.

CAPS will be pointed in the right direction to scoop up this material at almost 18 kilometers. or 11 miles a second. as we whiz through the plume.  Some of the gases released in the plume are electrically-charged by the time they reach Cassini; CAPS can measure the energies of these and how many are present. From this, we should be able to learn a lot about the plume: how dense it is, its composition, and how this plume affects the plasma flowing past it. This approach worked really well during the March encounter, so we’re hoping to repeat that success, but taking a different “cut” through the plume because Cassini will fly past Enceladus from a different direction.

We’re strapped in, noses against the window, and can’t wait for the ride!

Video From Mission Control

Carolina MartinezCarolina Martinez 

JPL News Team

This is a video clip of the Cassini mission control area and Grant Eller, on console, confirming with the Deep Space Station in Canberra, Australia, that data has begun transmitting from Cassini to Earth.  Play clip 

Here is a high-resolution, broadcast quality clip of the same event: High-resolution clip

And here’s an interview clip with Todd Barber, Cassini lead propulsion engineer:  Play clip

You can get a high-resolution, broadcast quality clip of Todd here: High-resolution clip

Tomorrow we will have more postings from our scientists and engineers and their comments on the images. 

Raw images may begin to appear in the pre-dawn hours (PDT) with some of the best raw views arriving in the late afternoon.  For the latest raw images see:

Enceladus August Flyby Preview

Amanda Hendrix

Cassini Scientist on the Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrograph (bio)

Hi everybody,

Well, after the successful and exciting Enceladus flyby in March … we’re doing it again!!  Cassini is executing a close pass by the little active moon, on Monday, August 11. Woo hoo!


This is the 5th close Enceladus flyby we’ve done. The first was in February 2005 (that one was not an official “targeted” flyby), the 2nd was in March 2005, the 3rd was July 2005 and the 4th was in March 2008. This is the 4th targeted flyby, so it’s sometimes referred to as E4.


It’s super exciting, because we’ll pass just about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the surface, and fly into the plume at the south pole. This is similar flyby geometry to the pass we did in March 2008 — but this time, the focus is on the imaging instruments.  (Recall in the March flyby – E3 – the spacecraft was oriented to optimize measurements by the fields and particles instruments, especially the INMS-Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer–so they could “taste” the plume as we flew through.) This time, the spacecraft will be oriented to optimize imaging of the south polar region – to get the highest possible resolution images of those tiger stripes, the primary sources of the jets that feed the plume.


Here’s a little overview of what’s going to happen during the flyby, focusing on the remote sensing measurements. Have a look at the accompanying cool movie (put together by navigator extraordinaire and all around heckuva guy Brent Buffington). Some of it goes by pretty fast, so you might want to go through it a few times to absorb what’s happening. I’ll talk you through it.


At the beginning of the Enceladus segment, Enceladus is still pretty far away and small. We start with a long (6.5 hr) observation where ISS (the Imaging Subsystem – the movie shows the Narrow Angle Camera, or NAC, as a white box) is the “prime” instrument (but all the other cameras — ultraviolet, infrared, long-wave infrared – are taking data too). So ISS scans around, to sort of map out the environment of Enceladus and probe into any visible plume material around Enceladus. We then turn to Earth for a short (3 hr) downlink. We want the solid-state recorders (SSRs, where the data are stored until downlink) to be as empty as possible before we get closer to Enceladus and want to really fill them up with a lot of bits of good data. After the short downlink, we turn back to Enceladus and this time VIMS (the Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer – with the field-of-view indicated by the red box) is the “prime” instrument. Enceladus is still small so we’re just staring and building up signal as we get closer and closer, to get good signal-to-noise spectra to understand the composition of Enceladus. By the end of the VIMS observation, Enceladus is just about fills the NAC. By the way, we’re coming in over the northern hemisphere of Enceladus; this is a relatively old part of the moon, which is apparent from the amount of craters present. Still not nearly as many craters as the Earth’s moon or Rhea, but it’s pretty heavily cratered for Enceladus. (The south polar region has *no* craters – since all that geologic activity wipes them out.) But I digress! So after VIMS, we switch to UVIS (the Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrograph) as “prime” instrument. This is the long, skinny pink/magenta field-of-view that you see in the movie. UVIS does a slow scan of the space near Enceladus by orienting the slit several radii off the body and slowly scanning onto the bright limb. If there are neutral gases such as hydrogen or oxygen in the vicinity of Enceladus (and we expect there to be, since we know there’s H2O vapor in the plumes), this is a possible way to detect those species and map them out. So after UVIS, ISS is prime again. And now we get into the really cool part.


ISS starts off with a two-panel mosaic of the northern hemisphere. Since the trajectory is pretty similar to the E3 trajectory, these images will be pretty similar to the ones obtained back in March – but still neat. Then the spacecraft does a large turn to get ready and oriented for closest approach. The flyby is so close and fast that it isn’t possible to make observations throughout the pass – we simply can’t keep up. The plan since the beginning was to orient the spacecraft, just prior to closest approach, so that the cameras will observe the active south pole region at the highest resolution possible. Notice in the movie that the spacecraft does the big turn, and then the boresights are actually pointed away from Enceladus for just a little while — so that as we zip by the moon, we’ll capture the south pole. So the imaging team (and I think Paul Helfenstein was primarily responsible) came up with this “skeet shoot” plan to execute 7 NAC frames across the tiger stripes, with resolutions between just 7 and 28 meters per pixel! Such high resolution images, combined with context frames, will really help in understanding the cracks and jets, and will provide clues to the origin of the plume. So the 7 frames are taken in under 3.5 min, and then 7 more are taken at resolutions up to 140 meters per pixel over the next 20 minutes or so. (The other instruments are “riding along” to get compositional and temperature information.) Note that the south pole is partly in darkness, and we’re moving fast, so the images and exposure times are carefully planned to balance light and smear. Images close to the terminator will really bring out the topography of the region, so they should be pretty spectacular.


After ISS is finished, CIRS takes over. CIRS is the Composite Infrared Mapping Spectrometer – the instrument that can “see in the dark” and map surface temperatures. CIRS becomes “prime” and does a few scans with their FP1 slit (the red circle) and their FP3 slits (the two little red rectangles). These observations will complement the *great* measurements made by CIRS on the last flyby in March (E3). Note that at about 21:41, Enceladus goes into Saturn eclipse – so there’ll be very little reflected solar light off Enceladus, which creates ideal conditions for measuring heat coming from within Enceladus. Enceladus comes out of eclipse at ~00:07. At ~01:06, or 4 hours after closest approach, VIMS is prime again for 1 hour, to get more compositional information on the south pole. We then turn to Earth for a 5 hour downlink. Then we turn back to Enceladus for a final stare with UVIS as prime instrument.


Recall that equinox is coming up in a year — Aug. 11, 2009 – and as we approach equinox (and solstice after that) the south pole is dominated more and more by darkness. So it’s really important that we get as many good looks at this wild south pole while we can! Of course, CIRS can do a lot of science even if the pole is in complete darkness – and later in the mission those will be important measurements to make, in case there is any seasonal input to the plume activity.


Whew! I’ve written a lot and hopefully haven’t bored you all completely to tears … I’m obviously very excited about this flyby and hope that you are too! Thanks for reading and coming along with us to explore Enceladus.




Cassini Engineering Is Ready for Enceladus!

Todd BarberTodd Barber

Cassini Lead Propulsion Engineer (bio)


Greetings from the engineering side of the Cassini mission to Saturn on this auspicious date, 8/8/08!  As most folks on the third rock from the Sun turn their attention toward China and the Summer Olympics, Cassini scientists and engineers at JPL are turning their gaze skyward for some Winter Olympics of our own at Enceladus.  As Amanda so eloquently posted in her blog entry, this is truly an exciting time for the mission.  We are a mere three days away from a daring pass near Enceldaus’ tumultuous south pole, peppered with fractures called “tiger stripes” and active ice volcanism!  Though we’ve been to Enceladus a few times before, every encounter is a new adventure, allowing each science instrument its time to shine.


E3 is March flyby and E4 is August flyby.

Image left: E3 is March flyby and E4 is August flyby. 


Before any science results may be achieved, though, we have to make sure the spacecraft is on course for a truly close approach to Enceladus.  Next Monday, Cassini will zip over this icy orb within 50 kilometers (30 miles), a close shave indeed considering Enceladus is roughly 1.5 billion kilometers (900 million miles) from Earth.  From the spacecraft engineering and navigation teams, I’m happy to report our final E4 flyby approach maneuver, OTM-163, was canceled yesterday afternoon.  These cancellation-decision meetings are always very interesting, representing a wonderful example of the collaborative efforts required of our scientists and engineers.  It turns out we could have performed OTM-163 today (i.e., it was large enough to execute), and we know where the spacecraft is very precisely.  The “tall tent pole” in the process turned out to be our uncertainties in the position of Enceladus itself, rendering the tiny maneuver superfluous!  Naturally, our understanding of Enceladus’ position will improve after Monday’s close flyby, but I thought it was quite interesting that we know where our (relatively) small spacecraft is better than we know the position of this moon of Saturn.  Among countless scientific reasons, this is another incentive for close flybys of moons like icy Enceladus.


Perhaps I could have predicted this maneuver would get canceled, given its cushy positioning on a regular working Friday, during prime shift.  Why aren’t the off-shift, holiday, and weekend maneuvers afforded the same cancellation probability, statistically?   I’m sure this perception of mine is incorrect, but no matter, because the important point is we’re on course for Enceladus.  Our engineering and navigation teams are happy and excited, and scientists are about to enjoy another thrilling encounter with this most perplexing of Saturn’s moons.





Prepare to be Amazed!

Carolyn PorcoCarolyn Porco

Cassini Imaging Team Leader


So here we are, getting ready to bear down … again … on one of the most remarkable places in the solar system. Only this time, our encounter with Enceladus could be the best of them all for us imaging scientists, who are hoping to peer deep into the fractures at the surface sources of Enceladus’ spectacular jets. (see image below and read more about it here.)


In fact, there have only been a few times during this whole mission when I was more anxious and sleepless with anticipation than I am now:  on approach to Saturn and waiting for the first sighting of landforms on the surface of Titan, anticipating the Saturn Orbit Insertion imaging sequence and wondering what the finest looks we would have of the rings might show us, and waiting for the first close-up high-phase image of the Enceladus jets around Thanksgiving 2005 … the image that has been seared into the minds of all of us.


This upcoming flyby holds that kind of fascination for me, because we have the chance of seeing those very special locales on the tiger stripe fractures that we now know are active, warm eruption vents and because of the daring targeting technique of `skeet shooting’ that has been employed to make it happen.  Estimates of the tidal stresses across the south polar region indicate that over the course of an Enceladus’ orbit, the vents could open by as much as 1/2 meter (about 2 feet). We won’t see such openings even in our highest resolution images, but maybe … just maybe … we might see other evidence of eruption, either something geologically unusual or banks of snow where icy particles in the jets fall back to the ground. Whatever we see, this will definitely be a first and very unusual event. We all are so very privileged to be here, alive, now, and living the dream of so many who came before us   …. to fly, to explore, to learn.


sout pole of Enceladus, stars indicate vent locationsI will say what I said four years ago as we were first entering the Saturn system and about to begin our explorations of this mysterious and far-away place … a time that now seems like a lifetime ago:  Prepare to be amazed!


Image left: Heat radiating from the entire length of 150 kilometer (95 mile)-long fractures is seen in this best-yet heat map of the active south polar region of Saturn’s ice moon Enceladus. The stars indicate the location of vents. More about the image 

Enceladus News Conference – Wednesday,March 26

Carolina MartinezCarolina Martinez, JPL News Team


There will be an Enceladus news conference at NASA headquarters in Washington at 11 a.m. PDT (2 p.m. EDT), Wednesday, March 26.  New results from the March 12 flyby will be presented.


For live streaming of NASA TV, visit:


Participants in the news conference will be:

Hunter Waite

– Hunter Waite, Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio–principal investigator,

  Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer

John Spencer

– John Spencer, Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colo.–co-investigator,

  Composite Infrared Spectrometer

Larry Esposito

– Larry Esposito, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colo.–principal investigator,

  Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrograph



Greetings From Houston

Amanda HendrixAmanda Hendrix, Cassini Scientist on the Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrograph

So here I am in Houston at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (aka LPSC). It’s Tuesday morning and yesterday was an interesting day, filled mainly with results from the first MESSENGER flyby of Mercury. Thursday afternoon there’s a session dedicated to Enceladus with talks on topics such as the possibility of a near-surface ocean, frictional heating, and crater chains. So I’ll be yawning my way through that session — not that it won’t be interesting, but I’m planning to stay up most of Wednesday night to watch my science data come in from tomorrow’s exciting Enceladus flyby! I’m super excited about it, and crossing my fingers that everything goes as planned.  Also, tomorrow at noon, Alan Stern (Associate Administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA HQ) will give a talk — I’m hoping he’ll mention the Enceladus flyby!

More soon from LPSC …


Waiting for Hidden Treasures

Linda SpilkerLinda Spilker, Cassini Deputy Project Scientist

I just got the good news that the playback has ended.  Now for the fun part!   I am eagerly waiting to see what new discoveries are buried in the bits streaming back from Cassini.

All sorts of questions are running through my head.  I wonder if the Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS) will find more exotic hydrocarbons in the gases it samples deeper in Enceladus’ geysers.  Will the magnetometer find an induced magnetic field that points to an ocean just under Enceladus’ crust?  If there is a water ocean, what are the chances that life might exist in it?

As a Composite Infrared Spectrometer (CIRS) co-investigator, I am especially interested in the new thermal maps of the south polar region.  I am eager to find out if any of the hot spots that our instrument saw back in July 2005 disappeared or if any new hot spots appeared, indicating that the geysers might change locations.  Given the golden opportunity to observe Enceladus up close during an eclipse, I wonder how quickly the surface of Enceladus warms up once sunlight hits it again.  With Enceladus’ fluffy surface, will it warm up faster than any other moon circling Saturn?
You’d think that being a veteran of icy satellite flybys this would be old hat for me by now, but each flyby is just as exciting as the one before it!


Amanda HendrixAmanda Hendrix, Cassini Scientist on the Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrograph (bio)

Well everyone, this is both exciting and a relief! — the flyby is over and we couldn’t have hoped for a smoother ride! I got word last night (during dinner!) that we had a signal from Cassini, which initially meant that the spacecraft hadn’t safed (always a good thing), and then the data started coming in.  Now, the downlink pass is over, the images are down, and they look wonderful!  I’m busy downloading and having a first look at the Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrograph data (thanks to Alain and crew for getting them into the database so quickly!).
Thanks so much to everyone out there for your support and great questions. We have more Enceladus flybys planned for later this year — here’s hoping they all go as nicely as this one. There’s a lot more to come!!
Amanda from Houston