Enceladus May Have Liquid Water Close To Its Surface, NASA Says

Posted: Mar 15 2017, 9:51am CDT | by , Updated: Mar 19 2017, 6:05am CDT, in News | Latest Science News

 

Enceladus may have Liquid Water Close to its Surface, Study
Credit: NASA
 

Saturn moon Enceladus' south pole is much warmer just a few feet below its icy crust

NASA’s Cassini probe has already shown that Saturn’s moon Enceladus harbors a global ocean beneath its icy crust. The presence of this subsurface ocean is evident through the moon’s intense hydrothermal activity and its icy geysers that spew icy grains miles into the space. 

Now, a new study based on microwave observations of its south pole, shows that the ocean of liquid water might be lurking just a few kilometers beneath the icy crust - much closer than previously thought. This is likely the reason why this region of Enceladus is warmer than expected only a few feet below its icy surface.

The conclusion is based on the data collected during a close flyby of the Enceladus in 2011.

“During this flyby, we obtained the first and, unfortunately, only high-resolution observations of Enceladus' south pole at microwave wavelengths. These observations provide a unique insight into what is going on beneath the surface,” said Alice Le Gall, a member of the Cassini RADAR instrument team and the lead researcher of the new study.

“They show that the first few meters below the surface of the area that we investigated, although at a glacial 50-60 K, are much warmer than we had expected: likely up to 20 K warmer in some places. This cannot be explained only as a result of the Sun’s illumination and to a lesser extent Saturn’s heating so here must be an additional source of heat.”

Enceladus, the sixth-largest moon of Saturn, appears to be cold and icy like most of the other moons in our solar system. But its south polar region contains four fractures known as the “tiger stripes”. These fractures are quiet now, but their appearance suggests that they might have a more tumultuous past than their present. Cassini's microwave observations show that excess heat is especially pronounced over three of these fractures.

Though the observations cover only a small, narrow patch of southern polar region, they clearly points to the dynamic nature of Enceladus. Researchers suggest that entire region is likely warm underneath and Enceladus' ocean could be only 2 km under the icy surface. But many questions still to be answered: What is the warm underground ocean really like? Could Enceladus’ surface support life?

"This discovery opens new perspectives to investigate the emergence of habitable conditions on the icy moons of the gas giant planets," said Nicolas Altobelli, European Space Agency scientist for Cassini–Huygens.

"If Enceladus' underground sea is really as close to the surface as this study indicates, then a future mission to this moon carrying an ice-penetrating radar sounding instrument might be able to detect it.”

 

 

 

 

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