Space scientists matched sizes of icy particles erupting from geysers with those in Saturn’s E ring to make discovery
Space news (June 30, 2015) – 237,378 km (147,500 miles) from Saturn
NASA space scientists using images provided by the Cassini spacecraft and computer simulations have created this collage showing long, sinuous, tendril-like streams of icy particles erupting from geysers on the surface of Enceladus’s southern polar region.
Space scientists studying the images believe these tendril-like structures originate from the geysers erupting on the surface of Saturn’s moon. Tendril-like structures they link directly to icy eruptions from certain sets of geysers on Enceladus’s surface, composed mainly of ice water particles, water vapor, and simple organic compounds.
“We’ve been able to show that each unique tendril-structure can be reproduced by particular sets of geysers on the moon’s surface,” said Colin Mitchell, a Cassini imaging team associate at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.
Space scientists also see evidence of the appearance of icy tendrils changing over time in the images provided the NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. “It became clear to us that some features disappeared from one image to the next,” said John Weiss, an imaging team associate at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington.
NASA scientists think visible changes seen in the appearance of the icy tendrils over time is due to a cycle of tidal stresses squeezing and stretching the surface of Enceladus as it orbits Saturn. They also think that as tidal stresses increase the width of the erupting fractures on the surface expands, resulting in an increase in the icy eruptions observed.
Using this model space scientists using the Cassini spacecraft and other assets will now test their ideas and theories on the reasons for the changing appearance of icy tendrils erupting from cracks on the surface of Enceladus into Saturn’s E ring.
There is even more that can be extracted from the images, the scientists say. “As the supply lanes for Saturn’s E ring, the tendrils give us a way to ascertain how much mass is leaving Enceladus and making its way into Saturn orbit,” said Carolyn Porco, team leader for the imaging experiment and a coauthor on the paper. “So, another important step is to determine how much mass is involved, and thus, estimate how much longer the moon’s subsurface ocean may last.” An estimate of the lifetime of the ocean is important in understanding the evolution of Enceladus over long timescales.
The icy waters of Enceladus could contain the ingredients necessary for life to exist and space scientists are keen to have a closer look at this distant moon in the future. With icy plumes erupting into Saturn’s E-ring containing complex organic compounds, and tidal forces heating the surface of Enceladus, NASA scientists think this moon is one of the best and most likely places to search for extraterrestrial life in the solar system.
The mission of Cassini has been extended through to September 2017, so space scientists can take a closer look at Enceladus, Titan and the rings of Saturn. Next, on Cassini’s itinerary is a flyby of Titan on July 7, 2015, when it will be slightly less than 11, 000 km (7,000 miles) from the moon.
For more information on NASA’s Cassini Solstice Mission check here.
To learn more about NASA’s space mission go here.
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