On Wednesday, NASA’s Cassini probe made its closest pass yet above the north pole of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, coming within 1,142 miles (1,839 kilometers) of the icy, eruptive satellite. Yesterday, we started to get back images of the encounter — and dang, they are beautiful.

Enceladus may be tiny —from end to end it could fit between San Francisco and LA —but this little moon’s got a larger-than-life personality. Its surface is covered entirely in ice, giving it the dazzling appearance of a perfectly packed snowball. But it’s beneath that shiny surface that things get really interesting.

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Scientists recently confirmed the presence of a global, subsurface ocean on Enceladus, one that’s probably heated through tidal interactions with Saturn. The presence of warm liquid water places Enceladus on par with Europa as a candidate for harboring extraterrestrial life. Best of all, we can take free samples of Enceladus’ ocean water, thanks to a series of cryovolcanoes that spew icy material off the moon’s south pole.

Flying by those south pole plumes and tasting Enceladus’ ocean are the next order of business. On October 28th, Cassini will make an even closer approach, sailing within 30 miles (49 kilometers) of the moon’s south polar region to sample Enceladus’ ocean water and analyze its chemistry. We already know that this extraterrestrial ocean is alkali like our own, and modeling studies suggest it could be dominated by the same chemical reactions that fueled life on early Earth. The data Cassini returns next could help scientists decide whether this moon really is a good candidate for habitability. If so, that knowledge would go a long way toward motivating a future life-finder mission.

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We’ll keep a close eye on the next encounter. For now, we can all just enjoy the stunning new close-up images of this strangely beautiful moon, and ponder what lies beneath its cratered surface.

Thin cracks crisscross craters along Enceladus’ north pole in this image taken on October 14th. These fractures are found across the entire surface of the icy moon

Battered terrain around the north pole of Enceladus taken on October 14th

A trio of craters located near Enceladus’ north pole taken on October 14th

An unprocessed image of Enceladus’ north pole taken on October 14th

An unprocessed image of Enceladus’ north pole taken on October 14th

An unprocessed image of Enceladus’ north pole taken on October 14th

An unprocessed image of Enceladus’ north pole taken on October 14th

An unprocessed image of Enceladus’ north pole taken on October 14th


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Image credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute