Enceladus and the E-ring. Credit: NASA/JPL

Enceladus Ejects Particles From Underground Ocean Into Space

New research from UCLA explores the mysterious moon Enceladus, one of Saturn's moons, and how it ejects icy silica particles from its subsurface ocean. Scientists used data from NASA's Cassini spacecraft to develop a theoretical model that explains how these particles are transported to the surface, shedding light on the moon's active geology and tidal forces. Discover the fascinating insights this study provides on Enceladus and its unique ocean world.

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Enceladus is a small, icy moon of Saturn that is considered an “ocean world” because it has a substantial volume of liquid water beneath its thick layer of ice. The water is heated by hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, creating an environment suitable for microbial life. Some of the materials from the ocean are released through large fractures in the ice known as “tiger stripes” near Enceladus’ warmer south pole.

Cassini data

Recent research based on data from the Cassini spacecraft, which flew by Enceladus multiple times between 2005 and 2017, has shed new light on the composition of materials spewing from the moon’s surface. Scientists have found that the ejected particles are rich in silica, a mineral commonly found in hydrothermal vents on Earth. The abundance of silica particles in Enceladus’ plumes suggests that the moon may also have hydrothermal vents on its ocean floor.

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A subterranean ocean

Ashley Schoenfeld, a UCLA doctoral student in planetary science, led a group that analyzed data collected by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft about Enceladus’ orbit, ocean, and geology. They constructed a theoretical model to explain the transport of silica particles across the ocean. The researchers found that tidal forces fuel Enceladus’ active geology as it orbits the host planet. Therefore, the moon is tugged and squished by gravity. This creates friction in both its ice shell and a deep rocky core. Eventually, this friction heats the bottom of the ocean enough to create a current that pushes the silica particles toward the surface.

Icy silica particles from Enceladus

This discovery has important implications for our understanding of the chemical and physical processes that take place in ocean worlds and may help inform future missions to explore them. The ejected particles are icy silica particles, which are so abundant that they are an essential component of the second outermost ring around Saturn, known as the E ring. The abundance of these particles in the E ring suggests that Enceladus continuously replenishes the ring with new material, indicating that the moon is still geologically active.

Hydrothermal vents

The presence of silica in Enceladus’ plumes and its potential origin from hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor provides an environment that could potentially support microbial life. Enceladus is already considered one of the most promising locations for finding life beyond Earth, with a subsurface ocean and the presence of organic compounds and other chemicals in its plumes previously detected. The study’s findings provide further evidence that Enceladus is an excellent target for future space missions to find extraterrestrial life. The abundance of silica particles in the E ring and the potential for hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor make Enceladus a unique location in the solar system and a potential hotspot for astrobiological research.

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Written by Justin Gurkinic

Hey, my name is Justin, and my friends call me Gurk. Why? Becuase of my last name. It sounds like a vegetable. Kind of. I love sleeping and writing. History is my thing.

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