Scientists: Enceladus’ tiger stripes come from underground ocean

The uncertainty of science: Using a new computer model, scientists now think they have shown how on the Saturn moon Enceladus pressure from an underground ocean can push through cracks to produce geysers on the surface.

Rudolph and his colleagues ran a physics-based model to map the conditions that could allow the cracks from the surface to reach the ocean and cause the eruptions. The model accounts for cycles of warming and cooling that last on the scale of a hundred million years, associated with changes in Enceladus’ orbit around Saturn. During each cycle, the ice shell undergoes a period of thinning and a period of thickening. The thickening happens through freezing at the base of the ice shell, which grows downward like the ice on a lake, Rudolph said.

The pressure exerted by this downward-expanding ice on the ocean below is one possible mechanism researchers have proposed to explain Enceladus’ geysers. As the outer ice shell cools and thickens, pressure increases on the ocean underneath because ice has more volume than water. The increasing pressure also generates stress in the ice, which could become pathways for fluid to reach the surface 20-30 kilometers away.

You can read the paper here.

Be warned: This is only a model. Moreover, its conclusions suggest that this mechanism will not work on Jupiter’s moon Europa, which has many planet-wide crack-like features that suggest (as yet unconfirmed) a bubbling up from below.

The never-ending snowstorm circling Saturn

New data suggests that the water being spewed out of Enceladus’s tiger stripes is depositing so much snow and ice on Saturn’s three inner moons, Mimas, Enceladus and Tethys, that these moons, as well as Enceladus, are about twice as bright in radar than previously thought.

Dr Le Gall and a team of researchers from France and the US have analysed 60 radar observations of Saturn’s inner moons, drawing from the full database of observations taken by the Cassini mission between 2004 and 2017. They found that previous reporting on these observations had underestimated the radar brightness by a factor of two.

Unprotected by any atmospheres, Saturn’s inner moons are bombarded by grains of various origins which alter their surface composition and texture. Cassini radar observations can help assess these effects by giving insights into the purity of the satellites’ water ice.

The extreme radar brightness is most likely related to the geysers that pump water from Enceladus’s internal ocean into the region in which the three moons orbit. Ultra-clean water ice particles fall back onto Enceladus itself and precipitate as snow on the other moons’ surfaces.

Dr Le Gall, of LATMOS-UVSQ, Paris, explained: “The super-bright radar signals that we observe require a snow cover that is at least a few tens of centimetres thick. However, the composition alone cannot explain the extremely bright levels recorded. Radar waves can penetrate transparent ice down to few meters and therefore have more opportunities to bounce off buried structures. The sub-surfaces of Saturn’s inner moons must contain highly efficient retro-reflectors that preferentially backscatter radar waves towards their source.”

While the new results suggest that the surfaces of these moons are much brighter that expected, I find the circumstances they describe far more fascinating: a never-ending snow storm in the orbits around Saturn and landing continually on these moons.

My, isn’t the universe wonderful?

Is it snowing microbes on Enceladus?

Is it snowing microbes on Enceladus?

“More than 90 jets of all sizes near Enceladus’s south pole are spraying water vapor, icy particles, and organic compounds all over the place,” says Carolyn Porco, an award-winning planetary scientist and leader of the Imaging Science team for NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. “Cassini has flown several times now through this spray and has tasted it. And we have found that aside from water and organic material, there is salt in the icy particles. The salinity is the same as that of Earth’s oceans.”

Enceladus rains water onto Saturn

The Herschel space telescope has discovered that the water expelled from the tiger stripes on Enceladus eventually rains down on Saturn.

Enceladus expels around 250 kg of water vapour every second, through a collection of jets from the south polar region known as the Tiger Stripes because of their distinctive surface markings. These crucial observations reveal that the water creates a doughnut-shaped torus of vapour surrounding the ringed planet. The total width of the torus is more than 10 times the radius of Saturn, yet it is only about one Saturn radius thick. Enceladus orbits the planet at a distance of about four Saturn radii, replenishing the torus with its jets of water.

Cassini directly samples the plumes from Enceladus and finds an ocean-like Spray

Cassini has directly sampled the plumes from Enceladus and discovered a salty ocean-like spray.

The new paper 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 kilometers per hour), 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.