Enceladus, the Jet-Powered Water World

I don’t think I’ll ever tire of seeing pictures of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, with those captivating water jets and plumes at its South Pole. And this new images from the Cassini mission is just stunning – and intriguing. Carolyn Porco, the Cassini imaging team lead described the image on Twitter: “Be moved by crescent Enceladus with its ghostly geysers floating above Saturn’s glowing rings.”

There are over 100 geyser jets of varying sizes near Enceladus’s south pole spraying water vapor, icy particles, and organic compounds out into space. Enticingly, this distant and small moon (313 miles or 504 kilometers across) has a global subsurface ocean of liquid water, as tidal forces from Enceladus’ orbital relationship to Saturn and another moon, Dione heats the interior.

Liquid water and the observation of organic chemicals in the plumes of Enceladus make this moon of high astrobiological interest to scientists. In a 2014 paper by Porco and astrobiologist Chris McKay, the due wrote that Enceladus’ “steady plume derives from a subsurface liquid water reservoir that contains organic carbon, biologically available nitrogen, redox energy sources, and inorganic salts. … No other world has such well-studied indications of habitable conditions.”

While the rings of Saturn are also beautiful, they are they are frozen and geologically dead. “The small ring particles are too tiny to retain internal heat and have no way to get warm,” the Cassini imaging team explained on the CICLOPS website.

This image was taken in July of 2015, and was not part of two close flybys of Enceladus in October of this year. Project scientist Linda Spilker hinted there might be some new discoveries from those flybys (see images here and here), as she said, “Cassini’s stunning images are providing us a quick look at Enceladus from this ultra-close flyby, but some of the most exciting science is yet to come.”

This beautiful view of Enceladus and Saturn’s rings looks toward the unilluminated side of the rings from about 0.3 degrees below the ring plane. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on July 29, 2015.

The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 630,000 miles (1.0 million kilometers) from Enceladus and at a Sun-Enceladus-spacecraft, or phase angle of 155 degrees. Image scale is 4 miles (6 kilometers) per pixel.

See a larger version of this image here from NASA.

Images from Enceladus ‘Plume Dive’ Courtesy of Cassini

Oh, to hitch a ride aboard NASA’s Cassini spacecraft this week. The Saturn orbiting sentinel recently completed an amazing series of passes near the enigmatic ice-covered moon Enceladus, including a daredevil dive only 49 km (31 miles) above the southern pole of the moon and through an ice geyser. Images of the dramatic flyby were released by the Cassini team earlier this morning, revealing the moon in stunning detail. 

Image credit
Enceladus vs the rings of Saturn. Image credit: NASA/JPL Caltech/Space Science Institute

“Cassini’s stunning images are providing us a quick look at Enceladus from this ultra-close flyby, but some of the most exciting science is yet to come,” says NASA mission project scientist Linda Spilker in today’s NASA/JPL press release.

Launched in 1997 from Cape Canaveral Florida in a dramatic night shot, Cassini arrived at the Saturnian system in 2004, and has delivered on some amazing planetary science ever since.

Discovered in 1789 by William Herschel, we got our very first views of Enceladus via the Voyager 1 spacecraft at 202,000 kilometers distant in 1980. Cassini has flown by the moon 21 times over the past decade, and ice geysers were seen sprouting from the surface of the moon by Cassini on subsequent flybys. one final flyby of Enceladus is planned for this coming December.

Image credit:
Ice geysers ahead, in this Oct 28th view from Cassini. Image credit: NASA/JPL Caltech/Space Science Institute

 

Mission planners are getting more daring with the spacecraft as its mission nears completion in 2017. The idea of reaching out and ‘tasting’ an icy plume emanating from Enceladus has been an enticing one,  though a fast-moving good-sized ice pellet could spell disaster for the spacecraft.

NASA successfully established contact with the spacecraft on Wednesday night October 28th after the closest approach for the flyby at 11:22 AM EDT/ 15:22 UT (Universal Time) earlier in the day. Cassini is reported to be in good health, and we should see further images along with science data returns in the weeks to come.

Image credit:
A closeup view of the icy terrain of the southern polar region of Enceladus from this weeks’ flyby. Image credit: NASA/JPL Caltech/Space Science Institute

A second, more distant flyby of Enceladus was completed by Cassini earlier this month as it passed 1,142 miles (1,839 kilometers) from the northern pole of Enceladus on October 14th, 2015 on its E-20 flyby.

But beyond just pretty post-cards from the outer solar system, Cassini’s successive passes by the mysterious moon will characterize just what might be occurring far down below.

Why Enceladus? Well, ever since ice geysers were spotted gushing from the fractured surface of the moon, it’s been on NASA’s short list of possible abodes for life in the solar system. Other contenders include Mars, Jupiter’s moon Europa, and Saturn’s giant moon, Titan. If the story of life on Earth is any indication, you need a place where an abundant level of chemical processes are occurring, and a subsurface ocean under the crust of Enceladus heated by tidal flexing may just fit the bill.

We’ll be adding further images and info to this post as more data comes in over the weekend, plus Cassini mission highlights, a look at the mission and final objectives and the last days of Cassini and more…

Stay tuned!

The end of Cassini in 2017 as it burns up in the atmosphere of Saturn will be a bittersweet affair, as our outer solar system eyes around the ringed planet fall silent. Cassini represents the most distant spacecraft inserted into orbit around a planet, and ESA’s Huygens lander on Titan marked the most remote landing on another world as well. Will we one day see a Titan Blimp or Ocean Explorer, or perhaps a dedicated life-finding mission to Enceladus?  Final mission objectives for NASA’s Cassini spacecraft include a final flyby of Saturn’s large moon Titan, which will set the course for its final death plunge into the atmosphere of Saturn on September 15th, 2017.

A high-resolution capture of Enceladus released this weekend by the Cassini team. The spacecraft was about 60,000 miles (96,000 kilometers) out when this image was taken. You can see the stark contract of the moon's fractured cantlope terrain, versus craters in the opposite hemisphere imaged criedt: NASA/JPL-CalTech/Space Science Institute
A high-resolution capture of Enceladus released this weekend by the Cassini team. The spacecraft was about 60,000 miles (96,000 kilometers) out when this image was taken. You can see the stark contract of the moon’s fractured cantaloupe terrain, versus craters in the opposite hemisphere imaged. Credit: NASA/JPL-CalTech/Space Science Institute

Want to see Enceladus for yourself? The moon orbits Saturn once every 1.4 days, reaching a maximum elongation of 13″ from the ring tips of Saturn and a maximum brightness of magnitude +11.7. Enceladus is one of six major moons of Saturn visible in a backyard telescope, and one of 62 moons of the ring planet known overall. The other five moons within reach of an amateur telescope are: Titan, Mimas, Dione, Rhea, and Tethys, and the fainter moon Hyperion shining at magnitude +15 might just be within reach of skill observers with large light bucket instruments.

Enjoy the amazing views of Enceladus, courtesy of Cassini!

Cassini’s Close Flyby of Enceladus Yields Surprising, Perplexing Imagery

If you thought Saturn’s moon Enceladus couldn’t get any more bizzare — with its magnificent plumes, crazy tiger-stripe-like fissures and global subsurface salty ocean — think again. New images of this moon’s northern region just in from the Cassini spacecraft show surprising and perplexing features: a tortured surface where craters look like they are melting, and fractures that cut straight across the landscape.

“We’ve been puzzling over Enceladus’ south pole for so long, time to be puzzled by the north pole!” tweeted NASA engineer Sarah Milkovich, who formerly worked on the Cassini mission.

While the Cassini mission has been at the Saturn system since 2004 and flown by this moon several times, this is the spacecraft’s first close-up look at the north polar region of Enceladus. On October 14, 2015 the spacecraft passed at an altitude of just 1,839 kilometers (1,142 miles) above the moon’s surface.

See more imagery below:

Craters and a possible straight fracture line mar the surface of Enceladus in this raw image from the Cassini spacecraft taken on October 14, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.
Craters and a possible straight fracture line mar the surface of Enceladus in this raw image from the Cassini spacecraft taken on October 14, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

The reason Cassini hasn’t been able to see the northern terrain of Enceladus previously is that it was concealed by the darkness of winter. It’s now summer in the high northern latitudes, and scientists have been anxious to take a look at this previously unseen region. Gauging by the posts of “Wow!” and “Enceladus what are you doing??” by scientists on social media, the Cassini team is as excited and perplexed by these images as the rest of us.

“We’ve been following a trail of clues on Enceladus for 10 years now,” said Bonnie Buratti, a Cassini science team member and icy moons expert at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “The amount of activity on and beneath this moon’s surface has been a huge surprise to us. We’re still trying to figure out what its history has been, and how it came to be this way.”

Craters and fractures dot the landscape of the northern region of Enceladus in this raw image from the Cassini spacecraft taken on October 14, 2015.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.
Craters and fractures dot the landscape of the northern region of Enceladus in this raw image from the Cassini spacecraft taken on October 14, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

While these raw images just arrived this morning, already image editing enthusiasts have dived into the data to create composite and color images. Here are two from UT writer Jason Major and image contributor Kevin Gill:

A beautiful view of the night side of a crescent Enceladus, lovingly lit by Saturnshine. This was captured by the Cassini spacecraft during a close pass on Oct. 14, 2015. The 6.5-mile-wide Bahman cater is visible near the center. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute, image editing by Jason Major.
A beautiful view of the night side of a crescent Enceladus, lovingly lit by Saturnshine. This was captured by the Cassini spacecraft during a close pass on Oct. 14, 2015. The 6.5-mile-wide Bahman cater is visible near the center. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute, image editing by Jason Major.
Saturn's icy moon Enceladus on October 14th, 2015 during Cassini's latest encounter. Assembled from uncalibrated images using infrared, green, and ultraviolet light. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-CalTech/ISS/Kevin M. Gill
Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus on October 14th, 2015 during Cassini’s latest encounter. Assembled from uncalibrated images using infrared, green, and ultraviolet light. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-CalTech/ISS/Kevin M. Gill

In an email, Cassini imaging team leader Carolyn Porco explained the flyby: “Our cameras were active during most of this encounter, allowing the imaging team and other remote-sensing instrument teams to observe the Saturn-opposing side of Enceladus on the inbound leg of the encounter, and a narrow, sunlit crescent outbound.”

From previous imagery and study of this moon, it has been suggested that the fractured and wrinkled terrain on Enceladus could be the scars of a shift in the moon’s spin rate. The moon has likely undergone multiple episodes of geologic activity spanning a considerable portion of its lifetime.

A complex region of craters and fractures near the north polar region on Saturn's  moon Enceladus. Image from Cassini spacecraft taken on October 14, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
A complex region of craters and fractures near the north polar region on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Image from Cassini spacecraft taken on October 14, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

While these images are incredible, get ready for even more. An even closer flyby of Enceladus is scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 28, during which Cassini will come dizzyingly close to the icy moon, passing just 49 kilometers (30 miles) above the moon’s south polar region. NASA says that during this encounter, Cassini will make its deepest-ever dive through the moon’s plume of icy spray, collecting images and valuable data about what’s going on beneath the frozen surface. Cassini scientists are hopeful data from that flyby will provide evidence of how much hydrothermal activity is occurring in the moon’s ocean, and how the amount of activity impacts the habitability of Enceladus’ ocean.

Then another flyby — Cassini’s final scheduled close flyby of Enceladus — on Dec. 19 will examine how much heat is coming from the moon’s interior from an altitude of 4,999 kilometers (3,106 miles).

Enceladus hovers over Saturn's rings in this raw image from the Cassini spacecraft taken on October 14, 2015.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.
Enceladus hovers over Saturn’s rings in this raw image from the Cassini spacecraft taken on October 14, 2015. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

An interesting side note is that the Cassini mission launched 18 years ago today (October 15, 1997).

Again stay tuned for more, and you can see all of Cassini’s raw image here, and find out more details of the upcoming flybys at this CICLOPS page.

Saturn Smackdown! Icy Moons Burned By Radiation And Ions

If you hang out in Saturn’s intense magnetic environment for a while, it’s going to leave a mark. That’s one conclusion from scientists who proudly released new maps yesterday (Dec. 9) of the planet’s icy moons, showing dark blotches on the surfaces of Dione, Rhea, and Tethys.

Cassini has been at Saturn for more than 10 years, and compared to the flyby Voyager mission has given us a greater understanding of what these moons contain. You can see the difference clearly in the maps below; look under the jump and swipe back and forth to see the difference.

So what do these maps yield? Radiation-burned hemispheres in Dione, Tethys, and Rhea. Icy deposits building up on Enceladus from eruptions, which you can see in yellow and magenta, as well as fractures in blue. Dust from Saturn’s E-ring covering several of the moons, except for Iapetus and Tethys.

"Tiger stripes" -- sources of ice spewing -- in this image of Saturn's Enceladus taken by the Cassini spacecraft in 2009. Credit: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA
“Tiger stripes” — sources of ice spewing — in this image of Saturn’s Enceladus taken by the Cassini spacecraft in 2009. Credit: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA

Could these be used by future explorers seeking life in some of these moons? In the meantime, enjoy the difference between Voyager’s view in the 1980s, and Cassini’s view for the past decade, in the comparison maps below.

A caution about the maps: they are a little more enhanced than human vision, showing some features in infrared and ultraviolet wavelengths. “Differences in color across the moons’ surfaces that are subtle in natural-color views become much easier to study in these enhanced colors,” NASA stated.

Dione

Enceladus

Iapetus

Mimas

Rhea

Tethys

100,000 Ice Blocks Mapped Out at the South Pole … of Enceladus

Ever since the Cassini space probe conducted its first flyby of Enceladus in 2005, the strange Saturnian moon has provided us with a treasure trove of images and scientific wonders. These include the jets of icy water vapor periodically bursting from its south pole, the possibility of an interior ocean – which may even harbor life – and the strange green-blue stripes located around the south pole.

Continue reading “100,000 Ice Blocks Mapped Out at the South Pole … of Enceladus”

Gallery: 5 Exotic Places NASA’s Next-Generation Rocket Could Help Explore

TORONTO, CANADA – Could NASA’s new rocket bring a probe to sample the geysers of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, or ferry human explorers to the surface of Mars? Representatives of contractor Boeing think so.

They’ve put together some ideas for sending their Space Launch System to these far-flung destinations, which they presented at the International Astronautical Congress today (Oct. 1).

Bear in mind that the SLS hasn’t yet flown — it’s slated for 2018 if funding lasts and the schedule holds — and the destinations below are just in the conceptual stage. The gallery below summarizes some of the destinations SLS could visit. For more information, check out this brochure by Boeing.

Enceladus

Artist's conception of the Cassini spacecraft flying amid geysers on Enceladus, a moon of Saturn. Credit: Karl Kofoed / NASA
Artist’s conception of the Cassini spacecraft flying amid geysers on Enceladus, a moon of Saturn. Credit: Karl Kofoed / NASA

The icy moon of Saturn is known as a hotspot for geysers; earlier this year, scientists found 101 gushers using data from the prolific Cassini probe. Using the SLS could bring a satellite there in four years, as opposed to about seven with rockets on the market today, according to Boeing. It also could carry a heavier spacecraft.

Europa

Artist's conception of Europa's surface, backdropped by planet Jupiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s conception of Europa’s surface, backdropped by planet Jupiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Europa is known to have a subterranean ocean, and it also is capable of spewing water plumes — as researchers using the Hubble Space Telescope discovered earlier this year. The SLS could get to Europa a lot faster than a launch with an Atlas, according to Boeing — it would only take two years to fly there directly as opposed to more than six years with the Atlas, which would need to fly by Venus first to pick up some speed.

Trojan asteroids

Artist's diagram of Jupiter and some Trojan asteroids nearby the gas giant. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s diagram of Jupiter and some Trojan asteroids nearby the gas giant. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Trailing before and after Jupiter are more than a million asteroids that are called Trojans. This means any probe in the area would have no lack of targets to study, providing it had enough fuel on board. A mission profile from Boeing suggests the SLS could bring a spacecraft out there that could swing by a target at least half a dozen times.

Mars

Artist's impression of astronauts exploring Mars. Credit: NASA/Pat Rawlings, SAIC
Artist’s impression of astronauts exploring Mars. Credit: NASA/Pat Rawlings, SAIC

One of the largest challenges of getting to Mars is figuring out how to send all the life-support equipment and food that humans require — on top of the humans themselves! Since SLS is a heavy-lift rocket, Boeing is trying to position its rocket as the ideal one to get humans to Mars. But it remains to be seen what concept works best to get people out there.

The Moon

Artist's impression of astronauts on the moon. This image was used to illustrate a landing concept of NASA's now defunct Constellation program. Credit: John Frassanito and Associates / NASA
Artist’s impression of astronauts on the moon. This image was used to illustrate a landing concept of NASA’s now defunct Constellation program. Credit: John Frassanito and Associates / NASA

Boeing has an idea to bring a lander down to the Moon that could then lift off multiple times in search of other destinations. Such a concept would require a hefty amount of fuel and equipment. If it works, Boeing says the SLS could assist with plans for lunar mining and other exploration ideas.

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

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

Saturn’s Sailor: 20 Cassini Pictures Marking A Decade At The Ringed Planet

We’re spoiled, don’t you know? It was 10 years ago today that the Cassini spacecraft entered Saturn’s system, and it has been busily beaming back pictures of the ringed planet and its (many) moons ever since. We’ve learned more about seasons on Titan, investigated plumes on Enceladus, and examined phenomena such as auroras on Saturn.

Embedded in this story are 20 of our favourite pictures from Universe Today’s archive of Cassini discoveries, which you can check out below the jump.

It’s only a fraction of the more than 332,000 images received from the spacecraft, which is in excellent health and has seen its mission extended three times past its original 2008 expiry date. Additionally, more than 3,000 scientific papers have been generated. More cool stats in this NASA infographic.

And by the way, we’re not the only ones assembling memorable images to mark the anniversary. Check out NASA’s favourite Cassini pictures of the past decade, or our friend Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy list. Also, here is NASA’s opinion of the top 10 discoveries at the ringed planet.

While thinking about Cassini, also don’t forget Huygens, the lander that descended to the surface of Titan in 2005. More on that in this past Universe Today anniversary story.

The full mosaic from the Cassini imaging team of Saturn on July 19, 2013… the “Day the Earth Smiled”
The full mosaic from the Cassini imaging team of Saturn on July 19, 2013… the “Day the Earth Smiled”
In this unique mosaic image combining high-resolution data from the imaging science subsystem and composite infrared spectrometer aboard NASA's Cassini spacecraft, pockets of heat appear along one of the mysterious fractures in the south polar region of Saturn's moon Enceladus. Image credit: NASA/JPL/GSFC/SWRI/SSI
In this unique mosaic image combining high-resolution data from the imaging science subsystem and composite infrared spectrometer aboard NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, pockets of heat appear along one of the mysterious fractures in the south polar region of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Image credit: NASA/JPL/GSFC/SWRI/SSI
Saturn, imaged by Cassini on approach. Credit: CICLOPS
Saturn, imaged by Cassini on approach. Credit: CICLOPS
Titan and Dione as seen by Cassini. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
Titan and Dione as seen by Cassini. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
Which Planets Have Rings?
This image taken by the Cassini orbiter on Oct. 15, 2007, shows Saturn’s A and F rings, the small moon Epimetheus and smog-enshrouded Titan, the planet’s largest moon. The image is colorized to approximate the scene as it might appear to human eyes. (Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)
Cassini imaging scientists used views like this one to help them identify the source locations for individual jets spurting ice particles, water vapor and trace organic compounds from the surface of Saturn's moon Enceladus. Credit: NASA
Cassini imaging scientists used views like this one to help them identify the source locations for individual jets spurting ice particles, water vapor and trace organic compounds from the surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Credit: NASA
Raw image from Cassini on May 18.  Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI
Raw image from Cassini on May 18. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI
Hemispheric color differences on Saturn's moon Rhea are apparent in this false-color view from NASA's Cassini spacecraft. This image shows the side of the moon that always faces the planet. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI
Hemispheric color differences on Saturn’s moon Rhea are apparent in this false-color view from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. This image shows the side of the moon that always faces the planet. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI
Three of Saturn's moons bunch together in this image by Cassini.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.  Click for larger image.
Three of Saturn’s moons bunch together in this image by Cassini. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute. Click for larger image.
This mosaic of Titan was created from the first flyby of the moon by Cassini in 2004. Credit: NASA/JPL/SS
This mosaic of Titan was created from the first flyby of the moon by Cassini in 2004. Credit: NASA/JPL/SS
Phoebe
Phoebe imaged by the Cassini spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA
Cassini VIMS image of specular reflections in one of Titan's lakes from a flyby on July 24, 2012 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Jason W. Barnes et al.)
Cassini VIMS image of specular reflections in one of Titan’s lakes from a flyby on July 24, 2012 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Jason W. Barnes et al.)
A crescent Dione was seen by Cassini on January 29, 2011 from approximately 767,922 kilometers away. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI
A crescent Dione was seen by Cassini on January 29, 2011 from approximately 767,922 kilometers away. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI
Rhea, as seen by Cassini. Credit: NASA
Rhea, as seen by Cassini. Credit: NASA
Cassini captured this startling image of Saturn's moon Hyperion. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL
Cassini captured this startling image of Saturn’s moon Hyperion. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL
ets of water ice particles spew from Saturn's moon Enceladus in this image obtained by NASA's Cassini spacecraft on Aug. 13, 2010. Image credit: NASA/JPL/SSI
ets of water ice particles spew from Saturn’s moon Enceladus in this image obtained by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft on Aug. 13, 2010. Image credit: NASA/JPL/SSI
This false-color composite image shows Saturn’s rings and southern hemisphere. The composite image was made from 65 individual observations by Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer in the near-infrared portion of the light spectrum on Nov. 1, 2008.  Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
This false-color composite image shows Saturn’s rings and southern hemisphere. The composite image was made from 65 individual observations by Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer in the near-infrared portion of the light spectrum on Nov. 1, 2008. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
This mosaic of images from NASA's Cassini spacecraft shows three fan-like structures in Saturn's tenuous F ring. Such "fans" suggest the existence of additional objects in the F ring. Image credit: NASA/JPL/SSI
This mosaic of images from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft shows three fan-like structures in Saturn’s tenuous F ring. Such “fans” suggest the existence of additional objects in the F ring. Image credit: NASA/JPL/SSI
Cassini came within 25 kilometers (15.6 miles) of the surface of Enceladus on Oct. 5, 2008.  Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
Cassini came within 25 kilometers (15.6 miles) of the surface of Enceladus on Oct. 5, 2008. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Cassini Spacecraft Confirms Subsurface Ocean on Enceladus

Ever since the Cassini spacecraft first spied water vapor and ice spewing from fractures in Enceladus’ frozen surface in 2005, scientists have hypothesized that a large reservoir of water lies beneath that icy surface, possibly fueling the plumes. Now, gravity measurements gathered by Cassini have confirmed that this enticing moon of Saturn does in fact harbor a large subsurface ocean near its south pole.

“For the first time, we have used a geophysical method to determine the internal structure of Enceladus, and the data suggest that indeed there is a large, possibly regional ocean about 50 kilometers below the surface of the south pole,” says David Stevenson from Caltech, a coauthor on a paper on the finding, published in the current issue of the journal Science. “This then provides one possible story to explain why water is gushing out of these fractures we see at the south pole.”

Artist’s impression of the possible interior of Enceladus based on Cassini’s gravity investigation. The data suggest an ice outer shell and a low-density, rocky core with a regional water ocean sandwiched between at high southern latitudes. Cassini images were used to depict the surface geology in this artwork. The mission discovered plumes of ice and water vapour jetting from fractures – nicknamed ‘tiger stripes’ – at the moon’s south pole in 2005. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.
Artist’s impression of the possible interior of Enceladus based on Cassini’s gravity investigation. The data suggest an ice outer shell and a low-density, rocky core with a regional water ocean sandwiched between at high southern latitudes. Cassini images were used to depict the surface geology in this artwork. The mission discovered plumes of ice and water vapour jetting from fractures – nicknamed ‘tiger stripes’ – at the moon’s south pole in 2005. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

On three separate flybys in 2010 and 2012, the spacecraft passed within 100 km of Enceladus, twice over the southern hemisphere and once over the northern hemisphere.

During the flybys, the gravitational tug altered a spacecraft’s flight path ever so slightly, changing its velocity by just 0.2–0.3 millimeters per second.

As small as these deviations were, they were detectable in the spacecraft’s radio signals as they were beamed back to Earth, providing a measurement of how the gravity of Enceladus varied along the spacecraft’s orbit. These measurements could then be used to infer the distribution of mass inside the moon.

For example, a higher-than-average gravity ‘anomaly’ might suggest the presence of a mountain, while a lower-than-average reading implies a mass deficit.

On Enceladus, the scientists measured a negative mass anomaly at the surface of the south pole, accompanied by a positive one some 30-40 km below.

“By analyzing the spacecraft’s motion in this way, and taking into account the topography of the moon we see with Cassini’s cameras, we are given a window into the internal structure of Enceladus,” said lead author Luciano Iess.

“This is really the only way to learn about internal structure from remote sensing,” Stevenson added.

The only way to get more precise measurements would be to put seismometers on Enceladus’s surface. And that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

Stevenson said the key feature in the gravity data was the negative mass anomaly at Enceladus’s south pole. This happens when there is less mass in a particular location than would be expected in the case of a uniform spherical body. Since there is a known depression in the surface of Enceladus’s south pole, the scientists expected to find a negative mass anomaly. However, the anomaly was quite a bit smaller than would be predicted by the depression alone.

“The perturbations in the spacecraft’s motion can be most simply explained by the moon having an asymmetric internal structure, such that an ice shell overlies liquid water at a depth of around 30–40 km in the southern hemisphere,” Iess said.

While the gravity data cannot rule out a global ocean, a regional sea extending from the south pole to 50 degrees S latitude is most consistent with the moon’s topography and high local temperatures observed around the fractures – called ‘tiger stripes’ at Enceladus south pole.

Many have said Enceladus is one of the best places in the Solar System to look for life. Noted scientist Carolyn Porco and Chris McKay have a recent paper out titled, “Follow the Plume: The Habitability of Enceladus,” where they say that since analysis of the plume by the Cassini mission indicates that the “steady plume derives from a subsurface liquid water reservoir that contains organic carbon, biologically available nitrogen, redox energy sources, and inorganic salts” that samples from the plume jetting out into space are accessible with a low-cost flyby mission. “No other world has such well-studied indications of habitable conditions.”

These latest findings by Cassini make a mission to Enceladus even more enticing.

Paper in Science (paywall) “The Gravity Field and Interior Structure of Enceladus.”

Sources: ESA, Caltech

Happy Holidays from Cassini!

Cassini couldn’t make it to the mall this year to do any Christmas shopping but that’s ok: we’re all getting something even better in our stockings than anything store-bought! To celebrate the holiday season the Cassini team has shared some truly incredible images of Saturn and some of its many moons for the world to “ooh” and “ahh” over. So stoke the fire, pour yourself a glass of egg nog, sit back and marvel at some sights from a wintry wonderland 900 million miles away…

Thanks, Cassini… these are just what I’ve always wanted! (How’d you know?)

Saturn’s southern hemisphere is growing more and more blue as winter approaches there — a coloration similar to what was once seen in the north when Cassini first arrived in 2004:

Saturn's southern hemisphere images from a million miles away (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
Saturn’s southern hemisphere images from a million miles away (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

(The small dark spot near the center right of the image above is the shadow of the shepherd moon Prometheus.)

Titan and Rhea, Saturn’s two largest moons, pose for Cassini:

Rhea (front) and Titan, images by Cassini in June 2011 (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
Rhea (front) and Titan, images by Cassini in June 2011 (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

The two moons may look like they’re almost touching but in reality they were nearly half a million miles apart!

Titan’s northern “land of lakes” is visible in this image, captured by Cassini with a special spectral filter able to pierce through the moon’s thick haze:

Titan images by Cassini on Oct. 7, 2013 (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
Titan images by Cassini on Oct. 7, 2013 (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Read more: Titan’s North Pole is Loaded with Lakes

The frozen, snowball-like surface of the 313-mile-wide moon Enceladus:

Enceladus: a "snowball in space" (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
Enceladus: a highly-reflective and icy “snowball in space” (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

(Even though Enceladus is most famous for its icy geysers, first observed by Cassini in 2005, in these images they are not visible due to the lighting situations.)

Seen in a different illumination angle and in filters sensitive to UV, visible, and infrared light the many fractures and folds of Enceladus’ frozen surface become apparent:

View of the trailing face of Enceladus (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
View of the trailing face of Enceladus (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Because of Cassini’s long-duration, multi-season stay in orbit around Saturn, researchers have been able to learn more about the ringed planet and its fascinating family of moons than ever before possible. Cassini is now going into its tenth year at Saturn and with much more research planned, we can only imagine what discoveries (and images!) are yet to come in the new year(s) ahead.

“Until Cassini arrived at Saturn, we didn’t know about the hydrocarbon lakes of Titan, the active drama of Enceladus’ jets, and the intricate patterns at Saturn’s poles,” said Linda Spilker, the Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Spectacular images like these highlight that Cassini has given us the gift of knowledge, which we have been so excited to share with everyone.”

Read more about the images above and see even more on the CICLOPS  Imaging Team website, and see the NASA press release here.

Thanks to Carolyn Porco, Cassini Imaging Team Leader, for the heads-up on these gifs — er, gifts!