Winter Wonderland

A few days ago, the Cassini spacecraft, 1.61 billion kilometres away in orbit around Saturn, made its closest ever pass of Saturn’s tiny moon Enceladus. It flew by around 49 km above Enceladus’ south pole – perilously close by astronomical standards. For comparison, Felix Baumgartner‘s record breaking skydive was from 39 km above Earth’s surface.

The objective of Cassini’s daredevil stunt was to take a close look at the watery plumes being ejected by the tiny moon to try and work out what drives them. And to gain some insight on the extent of Enceladus’ expected subsurface ocean.

While it was passing by though, Cassini also snapped this closeup image of the little planet’s surface…

Actually, the surface gravity on Enceladus is only 0.113 m/s² (compared with Earth's 9.807 m/s²). So you could probably jump over those bumps and ridges a bit like Super Mario...

What you’re seeing here (after image correction to fix the blurring – that craft was going extremely fast) is the wrinkled surface of the icy little world. The white scale bar is 1 km on this scale. Which means that all of those ridges are about the same size as streets and roads we may be more familiar with. To be honest, this part of Enceladus looks like a terrible place to go hiking.

While this may be the closest image of the surface we’ve ever seen, it’s by no means the only one. In case you’re curious about what it might be like to visit this tiny iceworld, here are a few others…

Give it a couple of hundred years, and I’d be very surprised if no one’s opened a skiing resort on Enceladus…

All images: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

I have to agree with @TychoGirl – The Khumbu icefall looks comparatively inviting!

About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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