Image of the Day: Saturn’s “Geyser Moon” Enceladus –An Organics Hotspot

 

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The last images for the next three years are in from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft flyby of the organics-spewing ice-moon Enceladus. The image above is a composite made from two raw images assembled to show Enceladus in its crescent-lit entirety with jets in full force. The images were rotated to orient the moon’s southern pole — where the jets originate — toward the bottom.Cassini was between 72,090 miles (116,000 km) and 90,000 miles (140,000 km) from Enceladus when these images were taken.


In the recent series of close flybys to Saturn's moon "Enceladus," NASA's Cassini spacecraft has revealed watery jets erupting from what may be a vast underground sea. These jets, which spew through cracks in the moon's icy shell, could lead back to a habitable zone that is uniquely accessible in all the solar system.

This latest May 2 flyby is mainly designed for Cassini's ion and neutral mass spectrometer, which "tasted" the particles in the curious jets spraying from the moon's south polar region. Combined with the March 27 flyby and a similar flyby on Oct. 1, 2011, this close encounter provides a sense of the jets' three-dimensional structure and help determine how much they change over time.

"More than 90 jets of all sizes near Enceladus's south pole are spraying water vapor, icy particles, and organic compounds all over the place," says Carolyn Porco, an award-winning planetary scientist and leader of the Imaging Science team for NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. "Cassini has flown several times now through this spray and has tasted it. And we have found that aside from water and organic material, there is salt in the icy particles. The salinity is the same as that of Earth's oceans.".

"If you add up all the heat, 16 gigawatts of thermal energy are coming out of those cracks," says Porco.She believes the small moon, with its sub-surface liquid sea, organics, and an energy source, may host the same type of life we find in similar environments on Earth.

"The kind of ecologies Enceladus might harbor could be like those deep within our own planet. Abundant heat and liquid water are found in Earth's subterranean volcanic rocks. Organisms in those rocks thrive on hydrogen (produced by reactions between liquid water and hot rocks) and available carbon dioxide and make methane, which gets recycled back into hydrogen. And it's all done entirely in the absence of sunlight or anything produced by sunlight."

"It's erupting out into space where we can sample it. It sounds crazy but it could be snowing microbes on the surface of this little world. In the end, it's is the most promising place I know of for an astrobiology search. We don't even need to go scratching around on the surface. We can fly through the plume and sample it. Or we can land on the surface, look up and stick our tongues out.  And voilà…we have what we came for."

The source of Enceladus's heat appears to be Saturn itself. Researchers say Saturn's gravitational pull causes the moon's shape to change slightly on a daily basis as it orbits. Flexing motions in its interior generate heat–like the heat you feel in a paperclip when you bend it back and forth rapidly.

"But the tidal flexing occurring now is not enough to account for all the heat presently coming out of Enceladus. One way out of this dilemma is to assume that some of the heat observed today was been generated and stored internally in the past."

Porco believes Enceladus's orbit could have been much more eccentric, and the greater the eccentricity, she says, the greater the tidal flexing and resulting structural variations that produce the heat. In this scenario, the heat would have been stored inside the little moon by melting some of the ice to recharge the liquid sea.

"Now that the orbit's eccentricity has lessened, the heat emanating from the interior is a combination of heat produced today and in the past," she says.  "But since more heat is coming out presently than is being produced, Enceladus is in a cooling off stage and the liquid water is returning to ice. There are models to show that it never really freezes entirely, so the eccentricity may increase again, restarting the cycle."

Whatever is turning up the heat, Porco has a plan of action. It's simple:"We need to get back to Enceladus and check it out.

The E-19 May 2 flyby completed a trio of recent close passes by Cassini of the 318-mile (511-km) -wide moon, bringing the spacecraft as low as 46 miles (74 km) above its frozen surface. The goal of the maneuver was to gather data about Enceladus’ internal mass — particularly in the region around its southern pole, where a reservoir of liquid water is thought to reside — and also to look for “hot spots” on its surface that would give more information about its overall energy distribution.

By imaging the moon with backlit lighting from the Sun the highly-reflective ice particles in the jets become visible. More direct lighting reduces the jets’ visibility in images, which must be exposed for the natural light of the scene or risk “blowing out” due to Enceladus’ natural high reflectivity.The images below are raw spacecraft downloads from the Cassini’s imaging headquarters in Boulder, CO.

 

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The Daily Galaxy via NASA/JPL and universetoday.com

Image Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI J. Major

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