Emily LakdawallaMar 26, 2008

Cassini Finds Enceladus Tastes Like a Comet

After missing most of today's press conference on Enceladus because NASA chose to hide it from public view on NASA's media channel -- which I can only reach on the Internet, not through the TV with digital video recorder that I was staring at this morning, waiting patiently for the news on Enceladus -- I did manage to catch up by phone with John Spencer and Hunter Waite, who were kind enough to take the time with me to explain the stuff I should heard during their prepared remarks earlier. Hunter suggested I talk with David Young too. All of this is now collected into a lengthy article on Cassini's March 12 Enceladus encounter.

The main punch line seems to be that there is a surprising quantity of organic compounds coming out of Enceladus. This pile of organics make its composition comet-like, and, to Hunter at least, suggests that there could be comets in Enceladus' ancestry, an idea that I find utterly baffling but which I dutifully reported.

While researching this article I came across a blog entry written by John Spencer on his analysis of the results, which is well worth a read. An excerpt:

The days after the Wednesday March 12th Enceladus flyby were a blur of frenzied activity for me as I worked to find the goodies in the tens of megabytes of data that Cassini's Composite Infrared Spectrometer (CIRS) instrument had gathered during the flyby. My first peek at the uncalibrated data the next day, on Thursday afternoon, was already thrilling - the glow of the tiger stripes was visible not just at the usual 9 - 16 micron wavelength range where we'd seen them before, but at wavelengths as short as 7 microns. Shorter wavelengths mean hotter temperatures (in the same way that white-hot is hotter than red-hot), so it looked like the fractures might be warmer than we had thought. By the time I got all the files I needed for the full analysis, from CIRS's home at the Goddard Spaceflight Center, it was time for dinner. Precious ones and zeros that had been flying through the Saturn system onboard Cassini 24 hours earlier, and squirted overnight across the solar system at the speed of light, made the final leg of their journey to analysis by bicycle, as I cycled home with my laptop.

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