Saturn’s ‘Geyser Moon’ Enceladus Vents To Cassini In Closest Yet Flyby Over South Pole

Enceladus has revealed itself in its greatest detail yet at the South Pole, imaged by the Cassini Spacecraft.

On what has been the “deepest-ever dive” through Enceladus’ Water plumes on its South Pole, NASA has released images of its October 28 flyby. NASA’s mission project scientist Linda Spilker explains.

“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.”

The Saturn moon is a fascinating subject of study for NASA, especially in its search for planetary bodies capable of supporting life. The moon Enceladus is as wide as Arizona and reflects nearly one hundred percent of the sunlight which strikes its surface. Its geological processes have resulted in five different types of terrain. There are regions with craters, fissures, plains, corrugated terrain and other crustal deformations. The varied surface indicates a heating process at work which regularly smooths the surface over time. Add to that the known water geysers at the South Pole and the possibility for life is one of the highest in the solar system.

Hunt For Life On Enceladus

The flyby is meant to measure the components of the water geyser and give further clues as to the possibility of life.

The geyser moon has all the ingredients for life.

The hydro-thermal activity at the South Pole is like that found at deep sea vents in Earth where heated water interacts with rock to form minerals. This is an environment which could support microbial life. In fact, the finding of microscopic grains of silica (quartz) indicates that water is superheated and then pushed through cooler water and ice at the surface before the resulting water ice is pushed out into space.

These latest images, as well as detectors, aboard Cassini will be used to determine if conditions are right for life, not if life currently exists. The key finding is the percentage of molecular hydrogen in the plumes. This measurement will determine the amount of geothermal activity on the planet. The greater the activity, the greater the chances for conditions for life.

It has been previously proposed that the unique geological processes combines with the spraying of fine jets could result in microbial snowflakes stretching for hundreds of miles from Enceladus’ surface.

Carolyn Porco, who leads the Imaging Science team for NASA’s Cassini Spacecraft, explains the process.

“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… the salinity [on Enceladus] is the same as that of Earth’s oceans.”

The life in these snowflakes would have been produced much as life on Earth is produced near volcanic rocks in the oceans. Organisms in this environment breathe hydrogen and carbon dioxide, releasing methane. The mineral rich water feeds these organisms which live without the need of sunlight.

It is theorized that the gravitational stresses caused by its orbit with Saturn is the cause of the internal heating. This so-called “tidal flexing” of Enceladus might also be giving Jupiter’s Europa, and even Pluto, enough internal heat to create an internal ocean capable of supporting life.

[All Images by JPL / Cassini / NASA]