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NASA's Cassini spacecraft snaps close-up images of Saturn's icy moon Enceladus

This week, NASA's Cassini spacecraft captured some of the most detailed images yet of Saturn's icy moon Enceladus. They show the bumpy terrain and streaked surface of the moon's northern polar regions, which have been impossible to photograph up until now. These new photos contain clues about the history of the moon’s poles.

The Cassini probe has been orbiting Saturn's planetary system since 2004, but its mission will soon come to an end in 2017. As it starts to wrap things up, the spacecraft will be conducting three flybys of Enceladus before the end of the year. The first flyby occurred on Wednesday at 6:41AM ET, bringing Cassini within 1,142 miles of the moon's north pole. That’s when these photos were taken; they were downloaded on Earth the following day.

For many years, Cassini’s north pole has been covered in shadow

For many years, Cassini’s north pole has been covered in shadow, making it hard to see with the spacecraft's instruments. But now, the summer sun is shining on the northern hemisphere, allowing Cassini's cameras to get a good view. The pictures show the area to be filled with thin cracks that slice through a variety of craters.

Researchers have known since 2005 that icy plumes erupt from underneath the surface of Enceladus, and recently, NASA confirmed that the moon has a vast ocean underneath its icy crust. It's possible that hydrothermal activity is occurring on the seafloor of this ocean, which could give rise to life. Getting close-up views like these will help NASA scientists understand how the geology of Enceladus evolves over time. The features of the moon’s surface can provide details about what’s going on underneath the crust.

This flyby was only the opening act for Cassini, though. The real excitement will occur on October 28th, when the spacecraft will come within 30 miles of the southern pole of Enceladus. Cassini will pass through some of the icy plumes that have been observed on the moon, collecting data about what lies in the ocean underneath. This will tell NASA more about the subsurface ocean's chemistry and whether or not the area could be habitable. Cassini can’t determine if life exists underneath the moon, but the probe is designed to tell researchers if Enceladus’ water is a place where microbes could thrive.

Cassini's final flyby of Enceladus will be on December 19th. The probe will come within 3,106 miles of the moon and measure the temperature of its core.

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