At least four distinct plumes of water ice spew out from the south polar region of Saturn's moon Enceladus. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Enceladus Rains Water on Saturn

Article Updated: 24 Dec , 2015

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It’s raining on Saturn! Well, kind of. Actually, not really. But there’s some really cool news about Saturn, Enceladus and water – great topics, all. The bubbly water shooting from the moon Enceladus is responsible for the “mystery” water that was found in Saturn’s upper atmosphere several years ago. Observations with the Herschel space observatory has shown that water ice from geysers on Enceladus forms a giant ring of water vapor around Saturn.

Astronomers from the ESA’s Infrared Observatory discovered the presence of trace amounts of water in Saturn’s atmosphere back in 1997, but couldn’t really find an explanation for why it was there and how it got there. Water vapor can’t be seen in visible light, but Herschel’s infrared vision was able to track down the source of the water vapor.

Enceladus expels around 250 kg of water vapor every second, through a collection of jets from the south polar region known as the Tiger Stripes because of their distinctive surface markings. Much of the ice ends up in orbit around Saturn, creating the hazy E ring in which Enceladus resides.

But a small amount reaches Saturn – about 3% to 5% of Enceladus’s ejected water ends up on the home planet of Saturn.

Phil Plait, The Bad Astronomer figured out that a decent rain shower on Earth is 7,000,000,000,000 times heavier than the rainfall on Saturn. So, not a lot of water makes it to Saturn.

But the fact that a moon is having an effect on its planet is unprecedented, as far as we know.

“There is no analogy to this behaviour on Earth,” said Paul Hartogh, Max-Planck-Institut für Sonnensystemforschung, in Germany, who led the collaboration on the analysis of these results. “No significant quantities of water enter our atmosphere from space. This is unique to Saturn.”

The running theory is that Enceladus has a liquid subsurface ocean of Perrier-like bubbly (and maybe salty) water. No one knows yet how much water lies beneath the moon’s surface, but it is thought that the pressure from the rock and ice layers above combined with heat from within force the water up through the Tiger Stripes. When this water reaches the surface it instantly freezes, sending plumes of ice particles hundreds of miles into space.

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.

The water in Saturn’s upper atmosphere is ultimately transported to lower levels, where it condenses. But scientists say the amounts are so tiny that the resulting clouds are not observable.

Again, despite its enormous size, this torus has it has escaped detection until now because of how water vapor is transparent to visible light but not at the infrared wavelengths Herschel was designed to see.

“Herschel has proved its worth again. These are observations that only Herschel can make,” says Göran Pilbratt, ESA Herschel Project Scientist. “ESA’s Infrared Space Observatory found the water vapour in Saturn’s atmosphere. Then NASA/ESA’s Cassini/Huygens mission found the jets of Enceladus. Now Herschel has shown how to fit all these observations together.”

Read the team’s paper here.

Source: ESA

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Anonymous
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Anonymous
July 27, 2011 3:32 AM

wouldn’t the water dry out ? or eventually will?

Armagh Planetarium
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July 27, 2011 8:32 AM

Yes, eventually, but the quantities of water escaping can’t be that great so I imagine this will go on for a really long time (billions of years).

Neaucknesh Smith
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Neaucknesh Smith
July 27, 2011 10:03 AM

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Torbjorn Larsson OM
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Torbjorn Larsson OM
July 27, 2011 1:42 PM
But wait! There is more! I want to drum on my cultural drum, as I learn more and more how active swedes are on the scene of space physics. Göran Pilbratt is now naturalized in the Netherlands, but has long worked on Corot and other missions.* And there are many more like him that I can find on the web, telling of involvement in space missions. * A fun fact to make it worth for you: if you google translate this, Pilbratt tells of how Corot started out with observing a lot of space junk. Among them a 30 cm piece from a chinese exploded craft that passed ~ 150 m [!] from Corot. Could have been that… Read more »
Torbjorn Larsson OM
Member
Torbjorn Larsson OM
July 27, 2011 1:42 PM
But wait! There is more! I want to drum on my cultural drum, as I learn more and more how active swedes are on the scene of space physics. Göran Pilbratt is now naturalized in the Netherlands, but has long worked on Corot and other missions.* And there are many more like him that I can find on the web, telling of involvement in space missions. * A fun fact to make it worth for you: if you google translate this, Pilbratt tells of how Corot started out with observing a lot of space junk. Among them a 30 cm piece from a chinese exploded craft that passed ~ 150 m [!] from Corot. Could have been that… Read more »
Gadi Eidelheit
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Gadi Eidelheit
July 27, 2011 2:37 PM

Nice to know, but that is only a small fraction of the water/ice at Saturn rings. Also the sentence “But the fact that a moon is having an effect on its planet is unprecedented, as far as we know. ” must have a correction. The moon has great effect on Earth, just to mention keeping its AXIS in the irght angle and the tide and law, probably you meant transferring materials from a moon to a planet.

Gadi Eidelheit
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Gadi Eidelheit
July 27, 2011 2:37 PM

Nice to know, but that is only a small fraction of the water/ice at Saturn rings. Also the sentence “But the fact that a moon is having an effect on its planet is unprecedented, as far as we know. ” must have a correction. The moon has great effect on Earth, just to mention keeping its AXIS in the irght angle and the tide and law, probably you meant transferring materials from a moon to a planet.

Torbjorn Larsson OM
Member
Torbjorn Larsson OM
July 27, 2011 10:24 PM

Among large effects moon-planet, the Io-Jupiter flux tube.

Btw, besides making a mass correspondence, the abstract notes that they measure non-Keplerian dynamics which implies the water ice is undergoing molecular collisions which ties in with that it is widely spread*. It is more dynamical “hot” than the near Keplerian rings, I take it.

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* Appreciable amount of molecular collisions in space. That sounds like an interesting environment!

William928
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William928
July 27, 2011 11:26 PM

Gadi,
I had the same thought with respect to the Moon’s effect on tides. The statement should have been “the fact that the Moon is having THIS effect on the planet is unprecedented, followed by the statement that a transfer of water from moon to a planet is unprecedented. In any event, an interesting article. Enceladus continues to intrigue me.

Torbjorn Larsson OM
Member
Torbjorn Larsson OM
July 27, 2011 1:19 PM
Enceladus is also a topic of the Origins 2011 conference, that Planetary Society features a report from. [You can find the link to the first part of the report from there.] The sample problem of the plumes has evidently started to be considered by the space community: “A talk by Luther Beegle from JPL addressed some estimations of the ability of current instruments to detect possible extant life within the liquid water reservoir of Enceladus. […] In his estimation, he also considered spatial heterogenity and the stochastic nature of samples. His main conclusion is that, without significant advances in detection and quantifiaction techniques, the only feasible approach to detecting possible life would be to carry out a sample… Read more »
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