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Enceladus And It’s Icy Mystery

September 29, 2010


What you see above are the ice plumes erupting from surface of Saturn’s sixth largest moon Enceladus. The image was taken by Cassini probe as it flew by the moon during 2009. Not until 2005 these ice geysers were known to scientists. During 2005, Cassini space probe first detected existence of these geysers along with magnetic field distortions. Since then various studies have been done to understand the source of these plumes but still the source remains a mystery. Scientists are interested in Enceladus as they want to know if there is a vast ocean of liquid water beneath the icy surface which might show some signs of life. As compared to other cellestial bodies of similar size and distance from the sun it is much warmer and uncommonly very active which makes the study of this particular moon very interesting.  The ice and water plumes escape the gravity of the moon and ultimately feed the E ring of Saturn.

Scientists have been studying if these plumes contain any traces of Sodium which might bolster the claim that there is a liquid ocean beneath the surface. If there is a sub-surface liquid ocean then the water will come in contact with the rocks and sodium from the rocks will mix with the liquid water. The results of this study has been mixed. One group found the presence of Sodium in the E ring of Saturn, while the other didn’t find any presence of Na when directly studying the plume. So the questions still remains unanswered. Scientists also claim that even if the presence of Sodium was confirmed , that would not still prove that there is liquid water ocean beneath.

One of such alternate models suggests that reservoirs of clathrates — gassy molecules locked up in the lattice of another molecule — exist below the surface. As tectonic plates in the crust move and collide, the crust fractures and these clathrates release gases, which carry up ice particles with them to form the icy plumes. These ice particles could carry up salt as well, says Susan Kieffer a geologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Sodium isn’t the proof of a liquid ocean,” she says. “Sodium can be locked up in the ice of an icy clathrate model.” [Nature News]

One of the studies also found some Ammonia in the plume which might suggest that ammonia, which is an antifreeze, keeps the water in liquid state beneath the surface.  There is a lot of ambiguity and hopefully recent Cassini fly-by (Aug-Sep 2010) will provide some more insight.

Picture Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Filed under: Science

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  • 1. Science Is Beautiful &raq&hellip  |  October 1, 2010 at 2:02 pm

    […] you have read my earlier post, you can easily tell what’s this picture about. This beautiful picture of Saturn’s […]

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