Scientists Discover 101 Geysers Erupting at Saturn’s Intriguing Icy Moon Enceladus

by Ken Kremer on July 29, 2014

This dramatic view looks across the region of Enceladus' geyser basin and down on the ends of the Baghdad and Damascus fractures that face Saturn. The image, which looks approximately in the direction of Saturn, was taken from a more elevated viewpoint than other Cassini survey images of this area of the moon's south pole.   Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

This dramatic view looks across the region of Enceladus’ geyser basin and down on the ends of the Baghdad and Damascus fractures that face Saturn. The image, which looks approximately in the direction of Saturn, was taken from a more elevated viewpoint than other Cassini survey images of this area of the moon’s south pole. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Scientists analyzing the reams of data from NASA’s Cassini orbiter at Saturn have discovered 101 geysers erupting from the intriguing icy moon Enceladus and that the spewing material of liquid water likely originates from an underground sea located beneath the tiny moons ice shell, according to newly published research.

The geysers are composed of tiny icy particles, water vapor and trace amounts of simple organic molecules. They were first sighted in Cassini imagery snapped during flyby’s of the 310-mile-wide (500 kilometers wide) moon back in 2005 and immediately thrust Enceladus forward as a potential abode for alien life beyond Earth and prime scientific inquisition.

Liquid water, organic molecules and an energy source are the key requirements for life as we know it.

The eruptions emanated from a previously unknown network of four prominent “tiger stripe” fractures, named Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo and Alexandria sulci, located at the south polar region of Saturn’s sixth largest moon.

Using imagery gathered over nearly seven years of surveys by Cassini’s cameras, researchers generated a survey map of the 101 geysers erupting from the four tiger strips.

This artist's rendering shows a cross-section of the ice shell immediately beneath one of Enceladus' geyser-active fractures, illustrating the physical and thermal structure and the processes ongoing below and at the surface.  Image Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

This artist’s rendering shows a cross-section of the ice shell immediately beneath one of Enceladus’ geyser-active fractures, illustrating the physical and thermal structure and the processes ongoing below and at the surface. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The new findings and theories on the physical nature of how the geysers erupt have been published in two articles in the current online edition of the Astronomical Journal.

Scientists had initially postulated that the origin of the geysers could be frictional heating generated from back and forth rubbing of the opposing walls of the tiger stripe fractures that converted water ice into liquids and vapors. Another theory held that the opening and closing of the fractures allowed water vapor from below to reach the surface.

The geysers locations was eventually determined to coincide with small local hot spots erupting from one of the tiger stripe fractures after researchers compared low resolution thermal emission maps with the geysers’ locations and found the greatest activity at the warmest spots.

After later high-resolution data was collected in 2010 by Cassini’s heat-sensing instruments the geysers were found to coincide with small-scale hot spots, measuring only a few dozen feet (or tens of meters) across.

“Once we had these results in hand we knew right away heat was not causing the geysers, but vice versa,” said Carolyn Porco, leader of the Cassini imaging team from the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and lead author of the first paper. “It also told us the geysers are not a near-surface phenomenon, but have much deeper roots.”

This graphic shows a 3-D model of 98 geysers whose source locations and tilts were found in a Cassini imaging survey of Enceladus' south polar terrain by the method of triangulation. While some jets are strongly tilted, it is clear the jets on average lie in four distinct "planes" that are normal to the surface at their source location. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

This graphic shows a 3-D model of 98 geysers whose source locations and tilts were found in a Cassini imaging survey of Enceladus’ south polar terrain by the method of triangulation. While some jets are strongly tilted, it is clear the jets on average lie in four distinct “planes” that are normal to the surface at their source location. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

“Thanks to recent analysis of Cassini gravity data, the researchers concluded the only plausible source of the material forming the geysers is the sea now known to exist beneath the ice shell. They also found that narrow pathways through the ice shell can remain open from the sea all the way to the surface, if filled with liquid water,” according to a NASA press release.

These are very exciting results in the search for life beyond Earth and clearly warrant a follow up mission.

“In casting your sights on the geysering glory of Enceladus, you are looking at frozen mist that originates deep within the solar system’s most accessible habitable zone,” writes Porco in her Captain’s Log summary of the new findings.

Surveyor's Map of Enceladus' Geyser Basin - On this polar stereographic map of Enceladus' south polar terrain, all 100 geysers have been plotted whose source locations have been determined in Cassini's imaging survey of the moon's geyser basin. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Surveyor’s Map of Enceladus’ Geyser Basin – On this polar stereographic map of Enceladus’ south polar terrain, all 101 geysers have been plotted whose source locations have been determined in Cassini’s imaging survey of the moon’s geyser basin. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Italian Space Agency (ASI). Cassini was launched by a Titan IV rocket in 1997 and arrived at Saturn in 2004.

In 2005 Cassini deployed the Huygens probe which landed on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon sporting oceans of organic molecules and another prime location in the search for life.

The Cassini mission will conclude in 2017 with an intentional suicide dive into Saturn to prevent contamination on Titan and Enceladus – but lots more breathtaking science will be accomplished in the meantime!

Stay tuned here for Ken’s Earth & Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

About 

Dr. Ken Kremer is a speaker, scientist, freelance science journalist (Princeton, NJ) and photographer whose articles, space exploration images and Mars mosaics have appeared in magazines, books, websites and calanders including Astronomy Picture of the Day, NBC, BBC, SPACE.com, Spaceflight Now and the covers of Aviation Week & Space Technology, Spaceflight and the Explorers Club magazines. Ken has presented at numerous educational institutions, civic & religious organizations, museums and astronomy clubs. Ken has reported first hand from the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral and NASA Wallops on over 40 launches including 8 shuttle launches. He lectures on both Human and Robotic spaceflight - www.kenkremer.com. Follow Ken on Facebook and Twitter

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