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MRO's orbit insertion explained
The make-or-break engine firing by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to enter orbit around Mars and the subsequent aerobraking to reach the low-altitude perch for science observations are explained by project manager Jim Graf in this narrated animation package.

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MRO overview briefing
Fuk Li, Mars program manager at JPL, Jim Graf, MRO project manager, Rich Zurek, MRO project scientist, and Dan McCleese, the principal investigator for the Mars Climate Sounder instrument, provide an overview on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on March 8, about 48 hours before arrival at Mars.

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Mars orbiter briefing
With two weeks until its arrival at the red planet, NASA and Lockheed Martin officials hold this Feb. 24 news conference on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The briefing explains how the MRO spacecraft will fire its engines to enter into orbit around Mars and the mission's scientific goals to examine the planet like never before.

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Progress undocking
The Russian Progress M-54 cargo freighter undocks from the International Space Station's Zvezda service module aft port on March 3, as viewed by onboard and ISS cameras. Known in the station's assembly sequence as Progress 19P, the craft was launched last September with food, water, equipment and fuel. It was filled with trash before the undocking to burn up in the atmosphere.

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ISS technical briefing
Mike Suffredini, NASA's program manager for the International Space Station, updates reporters on the technical aspects of implimenting the revised assembly sequence and configuration for the orbiting outpost in this teleconference held March 3.

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New ISS assembly plans
Leaders from the U.S., Russian, European, Japanese and Canadian space agencies hold this press conference at Kennedy Space Center on March 2 following meetings to approve a revised assembly sequence for the International Space Station using 16 space shuttle flights.

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Cassini finds evidence for water on Enceladus
Posted: March 9, 2006

Pockets of liquid water may exist near the surface of Saturn's icy moon Enceladus, the apparent source of huge Yellowstone-type geysers seen erupting from the moon's south polar region by NASA's Cassini spacecraft, scientists reported today. If so, Enceladus would join a very short list of bodies in the solar system with environments that could, in theory at least, support life.

Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
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"What we have found on Enceladus - simple organics, excess heat and evidence for liquid water - represents the Holy Grail of modern day planetary exploration, and we've just stumbled upon it," said Cassini imaging team leader Carolyn Porco. "How cool is that?"

It is not yet clear what process might be generating the energy needed to thaw ice in the ultra cold realm, but it may be a combination of natural radioactive heating and tidal flexing caused by Saturn's gravity, coupled with an era of heating in the past.

While the heat source is not yet clear, the results are. High resolution images and data from other instruments aboard Cassini show towering plumes erupting from long fractures dubbed "tiger stripes" in the fractured terrain near the south pole. Based on the volume and size of the ice particles spewing out, scientists believe they may originate from near-surface reservoirs of water that have been warmed above the freezing point.

"This finding has substantially broadened the range of environments in the solar system that might support life," Porco said in an email. "And it doesn't get any more significant than that. I'd say that if we did nothing else at Saturn, this discovery alone and its possible biological implications would have made the Cassini mission worthwhile."

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The Cassini imaging team, led by Porco of the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo., reported the findings in the current issue of Science magazine.

Carrying a suite of sophisticated instruments, Cassini braked into orbit around Saturn in July 2004 after a seven-year voyage from Earth. Since then, it's been looping around the planet in a series of ever-changing orbits, studying its spectacular ring system, its atmosphere, the space environment near Saturn and many of the planet's more interesting moons. Much of the early attention has been focused on Titan, a moon larger than Mercury that is shrouded in a thick atmosphere.

The much smaller Enceladus, just 300 miles or so across but one of the brightest moons in the solar system, has long been a target of interest because of earlier observations that hinted at an unusual surface. Cassini's observations have raised that interest to a new level.

Plumes of icy material extend above the southern polar region of Saturn's moon Enceladus as imaged by the Cassini spacecraft in February 2005. The monochrome view is presented along with a color-coded version on the right. The latter reveals a fainter and much more extended plume component. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
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"Images taken as early as 16 January 2005, images acquired during the February and July 2005 flybys, and those taken in late November 2005 have yielded striking visual evidence of many narrow jets of fine icy particles emanating from the south polar terrain," the imaging team wrote in Science.

"They also have yielded indications of extreme geologic youth in the SPT, morphological evidence of a change over time in surface stresses in the southern hemisphere, and possible evidence of an epoch of intense heating in the past."

During the November 2005 flyby, Cassini images revealed "many distinct near-surface jets, emanating from the surface in a variety of directions and supplying a much bigger, fainter plume towering over the south polar region by at least 435 km (270 miles)," the team wrote.

The source of the jets appears to be the so-called tiger stripes, a family of long, roughly parallel features that are typically 1,600 feet or so deep, about a mile wide and some 80 miles long. Most of the ice seen erupting in plumes falls back to the surface, but about 1 percent escapes and contributes to Saturn's E ring.

"At the moment, we interpret these observations to indicate that the south polar jets are the primary source of the E-ring," the science team writes. "The fact that almost all of the observed particles in the jets' extended plume are falling back to the surface may explain the extreme brightness of the interstripe plains as being due to freshly fallen snow."

As for the heat source, there are two possibilities: "either sublimating ice, above or below ground, or underground reservoirs of boiling liquid erupting through vents in the tiger stripes." The second option seems to fit the observations best and "the erupting mixture of vapor and liquid - or, in the case of Enceladus, vapor, liquid and ice particles - is like a cold Yellowstone geyser."

Heat from radioactive decay and tidal stress alone do not appear sufficient to produce the presumed reservoirs. But the moon may have undergone more extreme heating in the past due to changes in its orbital path around Saturn and the lingering traces of that heat, plus the ongoing radioactive and tidal processes, just might be enough to produce the necessary heating.

As Saturn's active moon Enceladus continues to spew icy particles into space, scientists struggle to understand the mechanics of what is going on beneath the fractured south polar terrain. This graphic illustrates key aspects of the model proposed by the Cassini imaging science team. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
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While scientists don't yet understand the details of how liquid water can exist close to the surface of such a cold world, "we cannot exclude the possibility that the processes producing the observed heating might result in local regions with even higher temperatures, leading to subsurface reservoirs of liquid water."

Based on data from NASA's Galileo Jupiter probe, researchers believe the jovian moon Europa and others may harbor subsurface reservoirs of water. But in those cases, the presumed water is at least several miles below the surface and no plumes like those seen rising from Enceladus have been obsesrved.

Porco said the reservoirs on Enceladus may be no more than a few tens of meters deep.

"We previously knew that Mars, the subsurface of Mars, might have water and therefore living organisms," Porco told CBS News. "We knew that moons like Europa around Jupiter ... might also be regions or bodies where we might find subterranean water. But now Enceladus has become and even more exciting target because this is a body where the water is closer to the surface. And also, it's not bathed in the intense radiation environment that Europa is."

Porco said the discovery could lead to "a redirection of our plans in exploring the solar system to focus on Enceladus as the next body we go to."

But not in the near term. NASA funding for space science is being cut back to help pay for the Bush administration's program to send astronauts back to the moon as a prelude for eventual manned flights to Mars.