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NASA's Cassini spacecraft has begun returning its best-ever views of the northern extremes of Saturn's icy, ocean-bearing moon Enceladus. The spacecraft obtained the images during its Oct. 14 flyby, passing 1,142 miles (1,839 kilometers) above the moon's surface. Mission controllers say the spacecraft will continue transmitting images and other data from the encounter for the next several days.
NASA's Cassini spacecraft zoomed by Saturn's icy moon Enceladus on Oct. 14, 2015, capturing this stunning image of the moon's north pole.
Scientists expected the north polar region of Enceladus to be heavily cratered, based on low-resolution images from the Voyager mission, but high-resolution Cassini images show a landscape of stark contrasts. Thin cracks cross over the pole -- the northernmost extent of a global system of such fractures. Before this Cassini flyby, scientists did not know if the fractures extended so far north on Enceladus.
NASA's Cassini spacecraft spied this tight trio of craters as it approached Saturn's icy moon Enceladus for a close flyby on Oct. 14, 2015. The craters, located at high northern latitudes, are sliced through by thin fractures -- part of a network of similar cracks that wrap around the snow-white moon.
The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Oct. 14, 2015 at a distance of approximately 6,000 miles (10,000 kilometers) from Enceladus. Image scale is 197 feet (60 meters) per pixel.
Enceladus is a world divided. To the north, we see copious amounts of craters and evidence of the many impacts the moon has suffered in its history. However, to the south we see a smoother body with wrinkles due to geologic activity.
Most solar system bodies lacking an atmosphere are heavily cratered like Enceladus' (313 miles or 504 kilometers across) northern region. However, the geologic activity in the south, including the famous plume above the moon's south pole, can erase craters and leave a younger, smoother-looking surface.