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Using data from seven years of flybys by Cassini of Enceladus scientists now think they have confirmed the existence of a global ocean of liquid water beneath the moon’s icy crust.
Cassini scientists analyzed more than seven years’ worth of images of Enceladus taken by the spacecraft, which has been orbiting Saturn since mid-2004. They carefully mapped the positions of features on Enceladus — mostly craters — across hundreds of images, in order to measure changes in the moon’s rotation with extreme precision. As a result, they found Enceladus has a tiny, but measurable wobble as it orbits Saturn. Because the icy moon is not perfectly spherical — and because it goes slightly faster and slower during different portions of its orbit around Saturn — the giant planet subtly rocks Enceladus back and forth as it rotates.
The team plugged their measurement of the wobble, called a libration, into different models for how Enceladus might be arranged on the inside, including ones in which the moon was frozen from surface to core. “If the surface and core were rigidly connected, the core would provide so much dead weight the wobble would be far smaller than we observe it to be,” said Matthew Tiscareno, a Cassini participating scientist at the SETI Institute, Mountain View, California, and a co-author of the paper. “This proves that there must be a global layer of liquid separating the surface from the core,” he said.
Previous data had suggested a lens-shaped ocean under the south pole. This new data suggests the ocean in global.
As always, the possibility of liquid water suggests the possibility of life. None has been found, but with water and energy it is certainly possible.