Cassini dances with Enceladus once again

By Phil Plait | November 2, 2009 8:15 pm

Today (as I write this), the Cassini spacecraft passed just a hair under 100 km (62 miles) from the surface of Enceladus, an icy moon of Saturn. This little moon is scientifically incredibly interesting; there are geysers at the south pole that are spewing out water! The images are just now coming in, and have not been calibrated or processed yet, but they are still breathtaking. I particularly like this one:


[Click to embiggen, as usual.]

That, me droogs, is high art. Enceladus was about 190,000 km (118,000 miles) away from Cassini when that shot was taken, a little under half the distance of the Earth to the Moon. From this angle, Enceladus is lit in a gorgeous thin crescent, but we can see detail on the dark side, I suspect due to light reflecting off Saturn onto the moon. You can see ridges in the surface; the moon has a thick crust of ice presumably floating on an undersurface ocean of water (though there have been arguments about that), so the surface is a bit of a mess, looking for all the world(s) like ice floes seen at our own north pole.

The geysers are obvious too, blasts of light at the top of the moon’s limb as the water erupting from the south pole is lit by the Sun. Thumbing through the raw images is a delight (once there, set the target for Enceladus, choose both narrow and wide angle, and put in dates of October 30 through November 3 to narrow the search). You’ll see dramatic images of the moon, its limb, the geysers, and everything.

Stunning, and wondrous. And there’s better to come: as Carolyn Porco herself mentions on Twitter, the primary purpose of this flyby was not to get images; November 21st is the imaging flyby where we’ll see lots of spectacular shots of the moon. So stay tuned!

Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: Cassini, Enceladus, Saturn

Comments (35)

  1. Very nice. Stunning and informative.

  2. Man, think about this cosmic ballet in terms of billiard accuracy! Would this be like shooting a 300+ rebound shot for the eight ball in the corner pocket? And the pictures and science are amazing as well!

  3. DWM

    These photos just take my breath away!! I’ve NEVER been so interested in astronomy (and especially in Saturn) until I began seeing all these pictures! My current favorite phrase is : “Standing On the Rings of Saturn”……if only!!!! Thank you for sharing all of this!

  4. Mike

    :O :O :O

  5. 5. PlasticRectangle Says:

    Well I’ll be a monkey’s uncle……

    Unless the Creationists are right



  6. Truly awe-inspiring! The beauty of the Universe is far more astonishing than anything the human mind can conjure! In the next hundred, or thousand years, just imagine the sights that humanity will behold! Thanks, Phil, for bringing it to us, and for adding a touch of humanity!

    Now I am off to find some enchiladas, because every-time I see the word Enceladus, I get hungry!

  7. nobody

    I wish we could go there and see this firsthand…

  8. GQ

    Astounding. Thanks for this, Phil.

  9. StevoR

    Awesome image. Thanks BA & the Cassini team. 8)

    Am I the only person who is reminded by this of the Bailly beads phenomena during a solar eclipse?

    @ 9 nobody Says:

    I wish we could go there and see this firsthand…

    Me too mate, me too! 😀

    @ 7John Paradox & 5 PlasticRectangle :

    5. Says: “Well I’ll be a monkey’s uncle……”
    Unless the Creationists are right hehehehehe

    Err .. they’re not – but you’re not either!

    Pedantically spekaing, we’re a type of hominid *ape* rather than monkey .. 😉

    ‘Course, go back far enough & we’re all cousins of pikaaia. :-)

  10. BigBob

    I just saved the full res version to my C: drive, then read it into my favourite art package – enhanced the contrast and voila, extra ridgy goodness!

  11. StevoR

    Off topic I’m afraid but I thought I remind folks who do know & inform folks who don’t that the Taurid meteor shower peaks on the 4th November.

    (Just a day late for Guy Fawkes day …)

    For more see :

    “The Taurids are an annual meteor shower associated with the comet Encke. They are named after their radiant point in the constellation Taurus, where they are seen to come from in the sky. Because of their occurrence in late October and early November, they are also called Halloween fireballs. … {SNIP!}… The Taurid stream has a cycle of activity that peaks roughly every 2500 to 3000 years, when its core passes nearer to Earth and produces more intense showers. In fact, because of the separate “branches” (night-time in one part of the year and daytime in another; and Northern/Southern in each case) there are two (possibly overlapping) peaks separated by a few centuries, every 3000 years. Some astronomers note that dates for megalith structures such as Stonehenge are associated with these peaks. … The next peak is expected around 3000 AD, suggesting that the Taurids may also be responsible for the Star of Bethlehem.


    “The discovery of the Taurids was made in 1869. The Northern Taurids were observed by Giuseppe Zezioli (Bergamo, Italy) during November 1-7, when he plotted 11 meteors from a radiant of RA=56 deg, DEC=+23 deg. …In 1940, Fred L. Whipple commented that the “multiplicity of radiants, the uniformity and the long endurance of the Taurid stream of meteors have disguised its character as one of the more important known showers.”

    May be worth going outside & taking a look folks! :-)

    (I’ve just done so – & typically its cloudy. Oh well Taurus is hardly up yet anyhow. )

    PS. BA – I think this is worth a blog post by you here if I may put in the request please! 😉

  12. FC

    I just love this tidbit from the FAQ:

    “Why don’t I see stars in the images?

    The exposures needed to take images of Saturn and its moons are still fairly short compared with the exposure times it takes to see stars. If you look really close you can sometimes see stars in images that are overexposed.”

    Try telling that to a moon-hoax believer…

  13. Paul F

    Wow, just amazing. Picture after picture of astonishment. And it’s truly stunning that we humans can build spacecraft that can fly within 62 miles of a moon so far away.

  14. Bodhipaksa

    You know how you can tell this is faked? There are NO STARS! If this was really in space you’d be able to see stars, right? Oh, wait. New information is coming in about that via my tinfoil helmet. I’ll get back to you…

  15. StevoR, too bad it’s basically a full moon though… That may dampen what could be a fun one. Although the Gemenid shower in December seems to line up with a nearly new moon.

  16. Rick In TX

    The image named W00060958 has some real interesting concentric impact rings. It makes the moon look like a pond that just had several rocks thrown into it.

  17. Ken

    Larian #2: Well, yes … if your 8-ball is fitted with little thrusters …

    Still. I am amazed they can mathematically figure out where they *want* it to go, let alone hit the target so accurately!

  18. That photograph is fantastic, the kind of thing that Pink Floyd or Tangerine Dream would have killed for to put on an album cover. In fact it looks a bit like the cover of Tangerine Dream’s “Zeit”, but in black and white.

  19. Rick in TX: Those are not impact rings, but are artifacts in the wide-angle camera optics (out of focus dust motes if I recall correctly). Those would be removed during calibration, I believe.

  20. Chet Twarog

    It’s actually really, extremely, too bad that the general public do not get to see these events/results from all the spacecraft via CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, NBC, or, even, the dreaded FOX.

  21. Messier Tidy-Upper

    @ 28 Chet Twarog :

    Why not? Why *don’t* these fantastic images and even a basic summary of what they are and what they mean appear on our nightly news?

    That really puzzles me. Aren’t NASA / ESA sending the media these images? Aren’t people in the media even the slightest bit impressed or thinking these may be newsworthy? I don’t get it.

  22. StevoR

    @ 19. Larian LeQuella Says:

    StevoR, too bad it’s basically a full moon though… That may dampen what could be a fun one. Although the Gemenid shower in December seems to line up with a nearly new moon.

    True. The Taurid’s are meant to have a number of bright fireballs so I’m hoping some may still have punched through – could be a good subject for some astronomical video recording if anyone’s trying that.

    We’ve also got the Leonids later this month too. Its actually the 210th anniversary of the very first spectacular Leonid meteor storm which occurred in 1799 – would be great if the Leonids put on as good a show this year! :-)

  23. StevoR

    Well it worked but was the wrong link (D’oh!) try :


  24. StevoR

    Yeah that’s the one I meant now. :-)

  25. Calv

    I’m sure the news agency’s would go put this on the news, but it seems that’s it’s only those of us that are on sites like this are the ones going to get excited. It’s always weird when i remember most of my friends couldn’t give a damn about that is currently being photographed in space and the news agencies see this as their audiences opinion. They aren’t going to put it on the news if their audience doesn’t care.

    to each his own i suppose…

  26. Mike

    I wish our moon, the moon, was like this, Europa, or Titan. Although I appreciate our moon…don’t get me wrong…how cool would it be if it offered something a tad more exciting than dust and craters.


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