Saturn's moon Enceladus spreads its influence
A huge doughnut-shaped cloud of water vapor created by the moon encircles Saturn.
September 22, 2011
Chalk up one more feat for Saturn's intriguing moon Enceladus. The small, dynamic moon spews out dramatic plumes of water vapor and ice — first seen by NASA's Cassini spacecraft in 2005. It possesses simple organic particles and may house liquid water beneath its surface. Its geyser-like jets create a gigantic halo of ice, dust, and gas around Enceladus that helps feed Saturn's E ring. Now, thanks again to those icy jets, Enceladus is the only moon in our solar system known to substantially influence the chemical composition of its parent planet.
Water vapor and ice erupt from Saturn's moon Enceladus, the source of a newly discovered doughnut-shaped cloud around Saturn. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
In June, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced that its Herschel Space Observatory, which has important NASA contributions, had found a huge doughnut-shaped cloud, or torus, of water vapor created by Enceladus encircling Saturn. The torus is more than 373,000 miles (600,000 kilometers) across and about 37,000 miles (60,000 km) thick. It appears to be the source of water in Saturn's upper atmosphere.
Though it is enormous, the cloud had not been seen before because water vapor is transparent at most visible wavelengths of light, but Herschel could see the cloud with its infrared detectors. "Herschel is providing dramatic new information about everything from planets in our own solar system to galaxies billions of light-years away," said Paul Goldsmith from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
The discovery of the torus around Saturn did not come as a complete surprise. NASA's Voyager and Hubble missions had given scientists hints of the existence of water-bearing clouds around Saturn. Then in 1997, ESA’s Infrared Space Observatory confirmed the presence of water in Saturn's upper atmosphere. NASA's Submillimeter Wave Astronomy Satellite also observed water emission from Saturn at far-infrared wavelengths in 1999.
While a small amount of gaseous water is locked in the warm, lower layers of Saturn's atmosphere, it can't rise to the colder, higher levels. To get to the upper atmosphere, water molecules must be entering Saturn's atmosphere from somewhere in space. But from where and how? Those were mysteries until now.
Build the model, and the data will come
The answer came by combining Herschel's observations of the giant cloud of water vapor created by Enceladus' plumes with computer models that researchers had already been developing to describe the behavior of water molecules in clouds around Saturn.
One of these researchers is Tim Cassidy from the University of Colorado, Boulder. "What's amazing is that the model, which is one iteration in a long line of cloud models, was built without knowledge of the observation,” said Cassidy. “Those of us in this small modeling community were using data from Cassini, Voyager, and the Hubble telescope, along with established physics. We weren't expecting such detailed 'images' of the torus, and the match between model and data was a wonderful surprise."
The results show that, though most of the water in the torus is lost to space, some of the water molecules fall and freeze on Saturn's rings, while a small amount — about 3 to 5 percent — gets through the rings to Saturn's atmosphere. This is just enough to account for the water that has been observed there.
Herschel's measurements combined with the cloud models also provided new information about the rate at which water vapor is erupting out of the dark fractures known as "tiger stripes" on Enceladus' southern polar region. Previous measurements by the Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrograph (UVIS) instrument aboard the Cassini spacecraft showed that the moon is ejecting about 440 pounds (200 kilograms) of water vapor every second.
"With the Herschel measurements of the torus from 2009 and 2010 and our cloud model, we were able to calculate a source rate for water vapor coming from Enceladus," said Cassidy. "It agrees very closely with the UVIS finding, which used a completely different method."
"We can see the water leaving Enceladus, and we can detect the end product — atomic oxygen — in the Saturn system," said Cassini UVIS science team member Candy Hansen from the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona. "It's very nice with Herschel to track where it goes in the meantime."
While a small fraction of the water molecules inside the torus end up in Saturn's atmosphere, most are broken down into separate atoms of hydrogen and oxygen. "When water hangs out in the torus, it is subject to the processes that dissociate water molecules, first to hydrogen and hydroxide, and then the hydroxide dissociates into hydrogen and atomic oxygen," said Hansen. “This oxygen is dispersed through the Saturn system. Cassini discovered atomic oxygen on its approach to Saturn before it went into orbit insertion. At the time, no one knew where it was coming from. Now we do."
"The profound effect this little moon Enceladus has on Saturn and its environment is astonishing," said Hansen.
Look for this icon. This denotes premium subscriber content.
Learn more »