An ocean is churning within Saturn’s moon Enceladus

An ocean is churning within Saturn’s moon Enceladus

Beneath the icy surface of Saturn's moon Enceladus lurks an ocean, new NASA data shows.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has confirmed that the moon Enceladus actually harbors a subsurface ocean that stretches all the way around the geologically active moon.

See also: Discovery of hydrothermal vents on Enceladus raises odds of life

Scientists using Cassini data had previously theorized that Enceladus' sea was actually "lens-shaped" under the moon's south pole, but the newly collected data revealed that the moon's ocean is far larger than that.

"This was a hard problem that required years of observations, and calculations involving a diverse collection of disciplines, but we are confident we finally got it right," Peter Thomas, Cassini imaging team member and author of the scientific paper detailing the find, said in a statement.

The new Enceladus revelation shows that an icy spray seen by Cassini, shot out from fissures in the moon's south pole, actually comes from the ocean itself, NASA said.

Scientists working with Cassini analyzed about seven years worth of images and data collected to dig into this mystery of the moon's subsurface ocean. The researchers mapped the moon's surface features and found that Enceladus has a bit of a wobble in its orbit around Saturn, NASA said.

This was a telltale giveaway of the ocean's presence under the surface.


Enceladus' liquid ocean and other layers labeled.

"If the surface and core were rigidly connected, the core would provide so much dead weight the wobble would be far smaller than we observe it to be," said Matthew Tiscareno, a Cassini scientist and a co-author of the paper, in a statement.

"This proves that there must be a global layer of liquid separating the surface from the core."

Enceladus' global ocean might be a boon for researchers continuing the hunt for life on other cosmic bodies. While water isn't a sign of life by itself, it is something that could be utilized by organisms living on another world, just as it is here on Earth.

Scientists aren't exactly sure why Enceladus' ocean remains in liquid form. Researchers think that it's possible that tidal forces exerted on the moon by Saturn are more powerful than initially expected, keeping the sea unfrozen, NASA said.

However, more data is needed before anyone can make a definitive conclusion about how the ocean remains unfrozen.

At the end of October, Cassini is expected to fly through one of Enceladus' icy plumes for the first time, allowing the spacecraft to sample the vapor before the mission comes to an end in 2017.

During the close flyby, Cassini will only be about 50 miles from the surface of Enceladus, according to NASA.

Enceladus isn't the only moon of the solar system with a vast ocean beneath its surface.

It's also possible that Jupiter's moons Europa and Ganymede have oceans beneath their crusts. Titan, which is another of Saturn's moons, might also play host to a layer of liquid water below its crust, according to data collected by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Our solar system is a surprisingly wet place.

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