NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has taken its first plunge past Saturn, and the results are pretty amazing. On its dive, Cassini goes from 45,000 miles from Saturn’s surface to as close as 4,200 miles from the spinning cloud cover, and it even threaded the needle by passing between the planet and its famous rings — where Cassini was hit by a few stray particles.
The brief video above shows some of the highlights of the first pass, and you can read about the first pass, and get links to the longer videos, here. Forget the fact that the video footage from Cassini is black and white, and focus on the fact that we are seeing video taken from a planet that is more than 750 million miles away from our little part of the universe. And take a good look at Saturn’s incredible strangeness — like the defined hexagonal shape that is formed by the cloud formations at Saturn’s north pole and the completely distinct eye that is found at the center of the polar vortex. What could cause the clouds to form such unusual, seemingly unnatural shapes?
It’s becoming increasingly clear that there is alien life out there, in our solar system and beyond. To the extent that people still cling to the geocentric notion that Earth is the only planet in the universe capable of supporting life, it’s time to think again.
The latest indicator of that reality came yesterday, when NASA announced that its Cassini spacecraft had found promising signs that alien life may exist on Enceladus, one of the moons orbiting Saturn. Cassini flew through a plume that was spraying out of the icy shell covering Enceladus and detected molecular hydrogen. That’s a big deal because molecular hydrogen is created by interaction between warm water and rock, and along with carbon dioxide is the kind of food that early, microbial life forms can thrive on. Scientists believe that life on Earth may have started in the same kind of environment surrounding the deep geothermal vents in our oceans — and if life started here, why shouldn’t it also occur in the same environment elsewhere?
Does that mean that there is, in fact, some form of life already existing on Enceladus? Not necessarily, because the large amount of molecular hydrogen and carbon dioxide detected by the Cassini spacecraft suggests that there isn’t much, if any, bacteria or microbial life on Enceladus actually consuming the food — a fact that doesn’t surprise scientists, because they think Enceladus is relatively young and it takes a long time for life to emerge.
But equally intriguing is that NASA also announced that the Hubble telescope found evidence of similar plumes on Europa, a much older moon orbiting Jupiter. Because Europa has apparently been around for billions of years longer than Enceladus, the combination of molecular hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and time might have allowed life to gain a foothold there. It’s something we’re going to have to explore.
The discovery was made by the Cassini spacecraft, which has been flying around the huge gas giant and its famous rings. Cassini reached a point within 46 miles of the south pole of ice-covered Enceladus, one of Saturn’s many moons, and on its close pass Cassini actually flew through the jets of water vapor and ice that make up the geysers emanating from the moon. In so doing, the probe “tasted” the vapor and determined that it consists of water, organic compounds, and salt, at the same salinity levels as Earth’s oceans.
The evidence suggests that there are liquid oceans underneath Enceladus’ icy crust, and that the water may be in contact with the moon’s rocky core — which could be supplying the chemical compounds that are the building blocks of life. This discovery makes Enceladus a prime candidate for another mission designed to determine whether life in some form actually exists on the moon. We’ll just have to hope that we can find the money necessary to fund the mission that will follow up on this very intriguing discovery.