Saturday, January 29, 2011

Cassini flies past fizzy ocean on Saturnian moon


Cassini found the little moon busily puffing plumes of water vapor, icy particles, and organic compounds out through fissures (now known as "tiger stripes") in its frozen carapace. Mimas, a nearby moon about the same size, was as dead as researchers expected, but Enceladus was precociously active.

Many researchers viewed the icy jets as proof of a large subterranean body of water. Near-surface pockets of liquid water with temperatures near 32o F could explain the watery plumes. But there were problems with this theory. For one thing, where was the salt? In 2009 Cassini's cosmic dust analyzer located the missing salt – in a surprising place.

"It wasn't in the plume gasses where we'd been looking for it," says Matson. "Instead, sodium and potassium salts and carbonates were locked up in the plumes' icy particles.* And the source of these substances has to be an ocean. Stuff dissolved in an ocean is similar to the contents of these grains."

The latest Cassini observations presented another intriguing discovery: thermal measurements revealed fissures with temperatures as high as -120o Fahrenheit (190 Kelvin).
More heat out there than we think could mean a lot of things.

(This was Coppedge's project, of course.)