On October 28, the NASA spacecraft Cassini performed a flyby of Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons, dipping just 30 miles above the surface at 19,000 miles per hour. In the past few days, Cassini has sent back to Earth the first images from the flyby, which targeted the icy geysers of the South Pole, as seen above.
Because the spacecraft zoomed by the moon so fast, the close-up below, of the South Pole, is a little blurry (and the Cassini imaging team even processed it a bit to remove "slight smearing" in the original image). It was taken from approximately 77 miles above the surface.
After the flyby, Cassini photographed this evocative image of Saturn's rings and Enceladus at a distance of 106,000 miles from the moon.
While the photos Cassini captured are lovely, the data the spacecraft gathered are equally important. Over the next several weeks, researchers will pore over the samples of gas and icy particles captured by Cassini's gas analyzer and dust detector instruments to gain better insight into the composition of the global ocean beneath the moon's icy surface. They'll also look for hydrothermal activity that might be occurring on the ocean floor. Why? It's part of our search for habitable environments—and, potentially, life—in the solar system and beyond.
In the meantime, you can take a look at raw images from the flyby.
All images courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute