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Cassini captures ocean-like spray at Saturn moon

The spacecraft found that relatively large grains rich with sodium and potassium dominate the plumes of Enceladus.
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has discovered the best evidence yet for a large-scale saltwater reservoir beneath the icy crust of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The data came from the spacecraft’s direct analysis of salt-rich ice grains close to the jets ejected from the moon.

Data from Cassini’s cosmic dust analyzer show that the grains expelled from fissures, known as tiger stripes, are relatively small and usually low in salt far away from the moon. But closer to the moon’s surface, Cassini found that relatively large grains rich with sodium and potassium dominate the plumes. The salt-rich particles have an ocean-like composition and indicate that most, if not all, of the expelled ice and water vapor comes from the evaporation of liquid saltwater.

“There currently is no plausible way to produce a steady outflow of salt-rich grains from solid ice across all the tiger stripes other than saltwater under Enceladus’ icy surface,” said Frank Postberg from the University of Heidelberg, Germany. When water freezes, the salt is squeezed out, leaving pure water ice behind. If the plumes emanated from ice, they should have very little salt in them.

The Cassini mission discovered Enceladus’ water vapor and ice jets in 2005. In 2009, scientists working with the cosmic dust analyzer examined some sodium salts found in ice grains of Saturn’s E ring, the outermost ring that gets its material primarily from Enceladus’ jets. But the link to subsurface saltwater was not definitive.

The new study analyzes three Enceladus flybys in 2008 and 2009 with the same instrument, focusing on the composition of freshly ejected plume grains. The icy particles hit the detector target at speeds between 15,000 and 39,000 mph (23,000 and 63,000 km/h), vaporizing instantly. Electrical fields inside the cosmic dust analyzer separated the various constituents of the impact cloud.

The data suggest a layer of water between the moon’s rocky core and its icy mantle, possibly as deep as about 50 miles (80 kilometers) beneath the surface. As this water washes against the rocks, it dissolves salt compounds and rises through fractures in the overlying ice to form reserves nearer the surface. If the outermost layer cracks open, the decrease in pressure from these reserves to space causes a plume to shoot out. Roughly 400 pounds (200 kilograms) of water vapor is lost every second in the plumes, with smaller amounts being lost as ice grains. The team calculates the water reserves must have large evaporating surfaces, or they would freeze easily and stop the plumes.

“This finding is a crucial new piece of evidence showing that environmental conditions favorable to the emergence of life can be sustained on icy bodies orbiting gas giant planets,” said Nicolas Altobelli from the European Space Agency in Noordwijk, Netherlands.

Cassini’s ultraviolet imaging spectrograph also recently obtained complementary results that support the presence of a subsurface ocean. A team of Cassini researchers led by Candice Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, measured gas shooting out of distinct jets originating in the moon’s south polar region at five to eight times the speed of sound, several times faster than previously measured. These observations of distinct jets, from a 2010 flyby, are consistent with results showing a difference in composition of ice grains close to the moon’s surface and those that made it out to the E ring.

“Without an orbiter like Cassini to fly close to Saturn and its moons
— to taste salt and feel the bombardment of ice grains — scientists would never have known how interesting these outer solar system worlds are,” said Linda Spilker from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Enceladus plumes
Dramatic plumes, both large and small, spray water ice out from many locations along the famed "tiger stripes" near the south pole of Saturn's moon Enceladus. The tiger stripes are fissures that spray icy particles, water vapor and organic compounds. NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has discovered the best evidence yet for a large-scale saltwater reservoir beneath the icy crust of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The data came from the spacecraft’s direct analysis of salt-rich ice grains close to the jets ejected from the moon.

Data from Cassini’s cosmic dust analyzer show that the grains expelled from fissures, known as tiger stripes, are relatively small and usually low in salt far away from the moon. But closer to the moon’s surface, Cassini found that relatively large grains rich with sodium and potassium dominate the plumes. The salt-rich particles have an ocean-like composition and indicate that most, if not all, of the expelled ice and water vapor comes from the evaporation of liquid saltwater.

“There currently is no plausible way to produce a steady outflow of salt-rich grains from solid ice across all the tiger stripes other than saltwater under Enceladus’ icy surface,” said Frank Postberg from the University of Heidelberg, Germany. When water freezes, the salt is squeezed out, leaving pure water ice behind. If the plumes emanated from ice, they should have very little salt in them.

The Cassini mission discovered Enceladus’ water vapor and ice jets in 2005. In 2009, scientists working with the cosmic dust analyzer examined some sodium salts found in ice grains of Saturn’s E ring, the outermost ring that gets its material primarily from Enceladus’ jets. But the link to subsurface saltwater was not definitive.

The new study analyzes three Enceladus flybys in 2008 and 2009 with the same instrument, focusing on the composition of freshly ejected plume grains. The icy particles hit the detector target at speeds between 15,000 and 39,000 mph (23,000 and 63,000 km/h), vaporizing instantly. Electrical fields inside the cosmic dust analyzer separated the various constituents of the impact cloud.

The data suggest a layer of water between the moon’s rocky core and its icy mantle, possibly as deep as about 50 miles (80 kilometers) beneath the surface. As this water washes against the rocks, it dissolves salt compounds and rises through fractures in the overlying ice to form reserves nearer the surface. If the outermost layer cracks open, the decrease in pressure from these reserves to space causes a plume to shoot out. Roughly 400 pounds (200 kilograms) of water vapor is lost every second in the plumes, with smaller amounts being lost as ice grains. The team calculates the water reserves must have large evaporating surfaces, or they would freeze easily and stop the plumes.

“This finding is a crucial new piece of evidence showing that environmental conditions favorable to the emergence of life can be sustained on icy bodies orbiting gas giant planets,” said Nicolas Altobelli from the European Space Agency in Noordwijk, Netherlands.

Cassini’s ultraviolet imaging spectrograph also recently obtained complementary results that support the presence of a subsurface ocean. A team of Cassini researchers led by Candice Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, measured gas shooting out of distinct jets originating in the moon’s south polar region at five to eight times the speed of sound, several times faster than previously measured. These observations of distinct jets, from a 2010 flyby, are consistent with results showing a difference in composition of ice grains close to the moon’s surface and those that made it out to the E ring.

“Without an orbiter like Cassini to fly close to Saturn and its moons
— to taste salt and feel the bombardment of ice grains — scientists would never have known how interesting these outer solar system worlds are,” said Linda Spilker from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

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