Geysers on Enceladus are Powered in Part by Saturn’s Gravity

by Nancy Atkinson on July 31, 2013

Dramatic plumes, both large and small, spray water ice out from many locations along the famed "tiger stripes" near the south pole of Saturn's moon Enceladus. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI.

Dramatic plumes, both large and small, spray water ice out from many locations along the famed “tiger stripes” near the south pole of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI.

The geyser jets of Enceladus don’t shoot out in a continuous stream, but are more like an adjustable garden hose nozzle, says Cassini scientist Matt Hedman, author of a new paper about the inner workings of this fascinating tiger-striped moon. Observations from Cassini has found that the bright plume emanating from Enceladus’ south pole varies predictably. The fluctuating factor appears to be how far or close Enceladus is to its home planet, Saturn.

Scientists have hypothesized that the intensity of the jets likely varied over time, but until now had not been able to show they changed in a recognizable pattern. Hedman and colleagues were able to see the changes by examining infrared data of the plume as a whole, obtained by Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIMS), and looking at data gathered since 2004 when Cassini entered Saturn’s orbit. In 2005, the jets that form the plumes were discovered.

“The way the jets react so responsively to changing stresses on Enceladus suggests they have their origins in a large body of liquid water,” said Christophe Sotin, a co-author and Cassini team member. “Liquid water was key to the development of life on Earth, so these discoveries whet the appetite to know whether life exists everywhere water is present.”

This set of images from NASA's Cassini mission shows how the gravitational pull of Saturn affects the amount of spray coming from jets at the active moon Enceladus. Enceladus has the most spray when it is farthest away from Saturn in its orbit (inset image on the left) and the least spray when it is closest to Saturn (inset image on the right). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Cornell/SSI.

This set of images from NASA’s Cassini mission shows how the gravitational pull of Saturn affects the amount of spray coming from jets at the active moon Enceladus. Enceladus has the most spray when it is farthest away from Saturn in its orbit (inset image on the left) and the least spray when it is closest to Saturn (inset image on the right). Credit:
NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Cornell/SSI.

The scientists say this new finding adds to evidence that a liquid water reservoir or ocean lurks under the icy surface of the moon. This is the first clear observation the bright plume emanating from Enceladus’ south pole varies predictably. The findings were published in a scientific paper in this week’s edition of Nature.

The VIMS instrument, which enables the analysis of a wide range of data including the hydrocarbon composition of the surface of another Saturnian moon, Titan, and the seismological signs of Saturn’s vibrations in its rings, collected more than 200 images of the Enceladus plume from 2005 to 2012.

These data show the plume was dimmest when the moon was at the closest point in its orbit to Saturn. The plume gradually brightened until Enceladus was at the most distant point, where it was three to four times brighter than the dimmest detection. This is comparable to moving from a dim hallway into a brightly lit office.

Adding the brightness data to previous models of how Saturn squeezes Enceladus, the scientists deduced the stronger gravitational squeeze near the planet reduces the opening of the tiger stripes and the amount of material spraying out. They think the relaxing of Saturn’s gravity farther away from planet allows the tiger stripes to be more open and for the spray to escape in larger quantities.

“Cassini’s time at Saturn has shown us how active and kaleidoscopic this planet, its rings and its moons are,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at JPL. “We’ve come a long way from the placid-looking Saturn that Galileo first spied through his telescope. We hope to learn more about the forces at work here as a microcosm for how our Solar System formed.”

Enceladus has likely been subject to other gravitational forces over time as well. Previous studies have shown that over hundreds of millions of years, an existing gravitational interaction between Enceladus and another moon, Dione, has caused the orbit of Enceladus to grow increasingly more elongated, or eccentric.

In turn, this produced much more tidal stress in the past and scientists think that contributed to the wide-scale fracturing and friction within Enceladus’ icy crust. The friction leads to melting of internal ice and produces an ocean and eruptions of water and organics on the surface.

Source: NASA

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Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

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