When Carolyn Porco started exploring the outer solar system, it was all about the rings. Her 1983 doctoral thesis at Caltech focused on shifting spokes in Saturn’s rings discovered by the Voyager spacecraft. As Voyager sailed past Uranus and Neptune, Porco led a group dedicated to their rings, too. So when she became the head of the imaging team for the Cassini satellite mission to Saturn, the gas giant’s majestic rings were expected to be the highlight.
But in Cassini’s seven years orbiting the great ringed planet, a new part of the system turned Porco’s head. One of Saturn’s icy moons, Enceladus, is spurting salty water full of compounds like propane, benzene, hydrogen sulfide and formaldehyde. The discovery vaulted Enceladus to the top of many astrobiologists’ wish lists for the next place to look for life in the solar system.
Wired.com caught up with Porco to talk about microbe-filled snow and bringing pictures to the public.
Wired.com: What’s coming up next for Cassini?