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NASA: Moon Geyser Dive a Smashing Success

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A false-color image from the Cassini spacecraft showing jets of fine icy particles erupting from the south polar region of Enceladus.Cassini Imaging Team/NASA/JPL/SSI

The international Cassini spacecraft collected science data on mysterious geysers spewing from Saturn's moon Enceladus and recorded new images of its surface during a close flyby, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said Thursday.

The pass Wednesday brought Cassini as close as 30 miles to the surface of the moon. It went through the icy geysers at 32,000 mph and an altitude of 120 miles, the lab said.

It's hoped that instrument data on density, size, composition and speed of plume particles will provide clues to whether there's a water ocean or organics inside the frozen moon.

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The geysers spew water vapor from fractures in the moon's south pole.

New pictures taken by Cassini show the surface of the north polar region is much older than the southern hemisphere and is pitted with craters, the lab said.

Cassini imaging scientist Carolyn Porco said the images provide an important comparison for "working out the moon's obviously complex geological history."

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Porco, of the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo., said the next big step will be getting detailed images of the surface sources of the plumes during a low-altitude flyby this summer.

The lab said that during Wednesday's flyby, one of Cassini's instruments, the Cosmic Dust Analyzer, had an unexplained software problem that prevented it from collecting data during closest approach, but it did collect data before and after.

Other instruments functioned properly, it said.