NASA's Cassini spacecraft has just sent its final flyby photos of Saturn's moon, Enceladus, to Earth.
All things considered, this has been a great year for close-up photographs within our solar system. The New Horizons probe found all kinds of new details about the distant Pluto, while the Cassini Spacecraft provided a close look at Saturn's moons. But NASA has been paying special attention to Saturn's Enceladus after discovering an entire ocean beneath its surface. Now Cassini has completed its final Enceladus flyby, and has sent the photos to Earth before continuing on its mission.
"This final Enceladus flyby elicits feelings of both sadness and triumph," Earl Maize, Cassini project manager said. "While we're sad to have the close flybys behind us, we've placed the capstone on an incredible decade of investigating one of the most intriguing bodies in the solar system."
Cassini first launched in 1997, and has been orbiting Saturn since 2004. After spotting something gushing out of warm fractures in Enceladus' South Pole, the spacecraft's flight plan was altered to include 22 flybys of Saturn's moon. NASA eventually confirmed that a global ocean was hiding beneath Enceladus' surface.
"We bid a poignant goodbye to our close views of this amazing icy world," Linda Spilker of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said. "Cassini has made so many breathtaking discoveries about Enceladus, yet so much more remains to be done to answer that pivotal question, 'Does this tiny ocean world harbor life?'"
While Pluto gained the lion's share of public attention this year, it's rather humbling to consider everything we've learned from this decades-long project. Photos from the flyby arrived on Earth last Saturday. We've attaached a few raw images to give you an idea of what NASA works with, but more are available on the mission's website. Cassini will continue to monitor Enceladus from a distance until its mission concludes in 2017.