Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Hot Spot On Saturn's Tiny Moon Enceladus Causes Icy Plumes

Date:
December 20, 2007
Source:
Washington University in St. Louis
Summary:
Enceladus, the tiny satellite of Saturn, is colder than ice, but data gathered by the Cassini-Huygens Mission to Saturn and Titan has detected a hot spot that could mean there is life in the old moon after all. The hot spot is causing plumes of ice and vapor to arise above Enceladus, say astronomers. If there is water on Enceladus, could there be life?

Hot spots on Saturn's tiny satellite Enceladus could be telltale signs of life on the frigid moon.
Credit: Photo courtesy NASA

Enceladus, the tiny satellite of Saturn, is colder than ice, but data gathered by the Cassini-Huygens Mission to Saturn and Titan has detected a hot spot that could mean there is life in the old moon after all. In fact, for researchers of the outer planets, Enceladus is so intellectually hot, it's smokin'.

The heat being generated on the moon's south pole at a hot spot is enough to eject plumes of ice and vapor above Enceladus. These plumes, according to William B. McKinnon, Ph.D., professor of earth and planetary sciences in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, are this moon's most intriguing feature.

"The plume particles are like smoke, ice smoke," McKinnon said. "If you were standing on Enceladus' surface you wouldn't even be able to see the plumes. The particles are just larger than the wavelength of light, about one-thousandths of a millimeter. Most icy bodies of this size are geologically inert, but this is a clear indication of geological activity. Cassini has found active venting of water vapor. This leads to scientifically intriguing speculations and questions."

One is: Is this active ice volcanism on Enceladus? If so, is it due to ice sublimating, in the manner of a comet, or to a different mechanism, like boiling water, as in Old Faithful at Yellowstone?

The biggest question: If there is water on Enceladus, is there life?

"I don't think so," McKinnon said. "The strongest piece of evidence against that is measurements made from Earth of the plume don't show any sodium. If the source of the plumes were fresh water like on Earth, the plumes would contain enough detectable sodium. Fresh water flows through rocks and on streambeds, and so it picks up bits of mineral chemistry. The emerging view is that there's not obvious evidence for a subterranean ocean in contact with rock, no boiling or venting."

McKinnon said that the leading model for the cause of the plumes on Enceladus is that the moon's tides cause its crust to ratchet or rub back and forth in a set of faults near the south pole. This action generates just enough heat to vaporize the ice that makes the plumes.

Cassini, which has been passing through the plumes of Enceladus, makes its next pass in March of 2008. It will go deeper into the plume and take more pictures of the moon's features, the venting area in the infrared, impact craters, cracks and fissures, and make better measurements of gases and vapors.

McKinnon presented "Cold Fire: The Geology and Geophysics of Enceladus," Dec. 10, 2007, at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

The mythological Enceladus is buried beneath Mount Etna and is responsible for the mountain's tremors and volcanism. The moon Enceladus is only 500 kilometers wide — roughly 300 miles wide, the distance between St. Louis and Chicago, and quite round for such a small body. Data from Cassini has revealed a rock-rich body, 55 to 60 percent rock by mass, with a surface of nearly pure water ice.

The temperature at the poles is some -220 degrees Celsius (C), but the hot spot is at least 100 degrees warmer. Enceladus is in a special relationship called dynamical resonance with another one of Saturn's moons, Dione. Every time Dione, in an exterior orbit around Saturn, circles Saturn, Enceladus goes around exactly twice. This resonance keeps Enceladus' orbit tidally pumped, maintaining an eccentric path that leads to a continuous squeezing under Saturn's gravity field.

This process makes a small part of the planet hot, relatively, for an icy satellite. It's the same mechanism that runs the tremendously hot silicate volcanism of Io and activates Europa, maintaining its ocean. Lo and Europa are two of Jupiter's moons.

"You only have to get so hot to make ice active," McKinnon said. "It doesn't have to get tremendously hot like it does on Lo. Ice volcanism requires an order of magnitude less energy for things to work out pretty well. The hot spots are -100 degrees C or possibly 'warmer'; the area around it is more than twice as cold. We still can't say how truly 'hot' the hot spots are. We'll probably learn this in March."


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Washington University in St. Louis. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

Washington University in St. Louis. "Hot Spot On Saturn's Tiny Moon Enceladus Causes Icy Plumes." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 20 December 2007. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/12/071217155253.htm>.
Washington University in St. Louis. (2007, December 20). Hot Spot On Saturn's Tiny Moon Enceladus Causes Icy Plumes. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 22, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/12/071217155253.htm
Washington University in St. Louis. "Hot Spot On Saturn's Tiny Moon Enceladus Causes Icy Plumes." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/12/071217155253.htm (accessed October 22, 2014).

Share This



More Space & Time News

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Comet Siding Spring Grazes Mars' Atmosphere

Comet Siding Spring Grazes Mars' Atmosphere

Newsy (Oct. 19, 2014) — A comet from the farthest reaches of the solar system passed extremely close to Mars this weekend, giving astronomers a rare opportunity to study it. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Latin America Launches Communications Satellite

Latin America Launches Communications Satellite

AFP (Oct. 17, 2014) — Argentina launches a home-built satellite, a first for Latin America. It will ride a French-made Ariane 5 rocket into orbit, and will provide cell phone, digital TV, Internet and data services to the lower half of South America. Duration: 00:41 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
This Week @ NASA, October 17, 2014

This Week @ NASA, October 17, 2014

NASA (Oct. 17, 2014) — Power spacewalk, MAVEN’s “First Light”, Hubble finds extremely distant galaxy and more... Video provided by NASA
Powered by NewsLook.com
Saturn's 'Death Star' Moon Might Have A Hidden Ocean

Saturn's 'Death Star' Moon Might Have A Hidden Ocean

Newsy (Oct. 17, 2014) — The smallest of Saturn's main moons, Mimas, wobbles as it orbits. Research reveals it might be due to a global ocean underneath its icy surface. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
 
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:  

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories

 

Space & Time

Matter & Energy

Computers & Math

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:  

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile iPhone Android Web
Follow Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins