Scientists say they have found 101 geysers erupting on Saturn’s frozen moon Enceladus, suggesting that it may be possible for liquid water in the moon’s underground sea to reach the surface.
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft first spotted the geysers as plumes in 2005. Since then Cassini has been orbiting Saturn and its surrounding moons, allowing scientists to further study the geysers and accurately count them.
At the time the geysers were first discovered, scientists believed they were caused by repeated “flexing” of Enceladus by Saturn’s gravity as the moon orbits the planet. The new findings reveal that the geysers coincide with small “hot spots” that are roughly a few dozen feet across – too small to be produced by frictional heating from flexing, but the right size to be formed from condensation of vapor from fractures in the moon’s surface.
"Once we had these results in hand, we knew right away heat was not causing the geysers, but vice versa," Carolyn Porco, leader of the Cassini imaging team from the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and lead author of the first paper, said in a statement. "It also told us the geysers are not a near-surface phenomenon, but have much deeper roots."
There has been speculation in the scientific community that the ocean of liquid water beneath the frozen crust is capable of supporting life. The 6-mile deep ocean is not easily accessible for study – it is beneath a crust of solid ice that is between 19 and 25 miles thick. It sits right above the moon’s rocky seafloor, meaning there is potential for chemical reactions similar to those that likely bed to life forming on Earth.
The findings were published in two articles in the online edition of the Astronomical Journal.