Moon and Saturn

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Moon and Saturn

Big space missions require big patience. A high-priority mission to one of the moons of Saturn, for example, won’t arrive for more than a quarter of a century — if it gets there at all.

Enceladus Orbilander received a high ranking in a blueprint of NASA science for the coming decade. It rated after a Mars sample return mission and a trip to the giant planet Uranus.

It ranked highly because Enceladus is considered a possible home for life. Geysers of water and ice erupt from cracks near the south pole. The water comes from a global ocean of liquid water below the moon’s icy crust. The ocean appears to have all the ingredients for microscopic life.

Orbilander would orbit Saturn for almost five years, gradually maneuvering into orbit around Enceladus. It would fly through the geysers, looking for signs of life. After a year and a half in orbit, it would land near the south pole. It then would spend a couple of years measuring material from the geysers that was falling to the ground.

Orbilander would cost $5 billion or more, so it’ll take some time to get it all together. At the earliest, it would launch in the 2030s, arrive at Saturn around 2045, and land in the 2050s — a goal that’s going to take some patience.

Saturn itself is close to the Moon tonight. It looks like a bright star to the upper left of the Moon at nightfall, and closer above the Moon as they set in the wee hours of the morning.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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