New map of water jets on Saturn satellite

New map of water jets on Saturn satellite

by Colin Stuart

The team of scientists behind the Cassini space probe has just unveiled details of a staggering 101 geysers erupting from the surface of Enceladus, Saturn’s sixth largest satellite. These plumes contain ice and water vapour, making the moon one of the best places to look for life elsewhere in the solar system.

Plumes of ice and water vapour erupting from the surface of Enceladus [credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute]

The jets, which can soar 500 kilometres into space, rise from four giant cracks in the moon’s icy surface known as ‘tiger stripes’. The four cracks in question are named after cities in Africa and the Middle East: Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo and Alexandria. Almost seven years’ worth of data went into producing a map of the geysers at Enceladus’s south pole. It is believed that the ice and water are coming from an invisible sea, hidden deep under the surface.

The new Cassini map of the Enceladean surface showing the four tiger stripes (Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus and Alexandria). Each circle is the location of one of the 101 geysers. [credit:NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI]

This idea was backed up earlier this year by another result from Cassini. As the probe flies past Enceladus it feels the gravitational pull of the moon. If it flies past a dense region it feels a stronger tug and its speed increases. This stretches out the radio waves being sent back to Earth, telling us exactly how much it is speeding up.

The data show that Cassini sped up when passing a region that was previously thought to be pretty light. This must mean there is some heavier material under Enceladus’s south pole giving the probe an extra tug. The prime candidate is an ocean of water and that would help explain the explosive geysers spouting from this area.

The presence of liquid ensures the Enceladus will remain one of most exciting destinations for space exploration. Future missions to the icy moon may even uncover life tucked away beneath the tiger stripes.