From the September 2018 issue

Saturn’s moons (Enceladus, for example) are heated by gravitational flexing. How does this process work?

John C. Mackey,  Bloomington, Indiana
By | Published: September 26, 2018 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
Active vents on Enceladus are driven by the tidal heating and gravitational flexing that occurs as the moon circles Saturn, causing chambers of liquid water and volatiles to erupt, as in this artist’s rendering.
Gravity is the force of attraction between two objects. Its effects play an interesting role between a giant planet such as Jupiter or Saturn and their numerous moons — for instance, the Galilean moons Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, or the saturnian moons Titan and Enceladus.

Gravitational forces differ on the sides of the moon nearest and farthest from the planet, and their strength changes during the course of the satellite’s orbit. This creates internal friction that heats the interior of the moon. There is more or less constant flexing and heating between Jupiter and Saturn and their major moons.

In the case of Enceladus, the Cassini spacecraft detected geysers or jets spewing material from the surface into space. These geysers are most likely caused by tidal heating and the formation of chambers, similar to magma chambers but filled with water and volatiles instead of molten rock, that flex due to tides. Hence, gravitational flexing and tidal heating provide the energy that powers the jets of Enceladus.

Anezina Solomonidou 

European Space Agency Research Fellow, 
Madrid, Spain