Studies of the enigmatic jets erupting from Enceladus’ south pole have shown the presence of salt in the expelled material, hinting at the possibility of a subsurface ocean beneath the crust of this moon of Saturn.
The jets, discovered in 2005 by the Cassini mission, erupt into space from the 318-mile-wide moon’s south pole region from long fissures in its icy crust known as “tiger stripes”. These jets are composed of fine particles of water ice and enter orbit around Saturn, contributing material to the diffuse E ring. Their origins within the moon are unknown but these new findings point towards the existence of a reservoir of liquid water beneath Enceladus’ surface.
“Our measurements imply that besides table salt, the grains also contain carbonates like soda. Both components are in concentrations that match the predicted composition of an Enceladus ocean.” – Frank Postberg, Cassini scientist for the cosmic dust analyzer at the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg, Germany.
As to whether the water feeds the jets from isolated pockets or a vast underground ocean, the jury is still out.
Regardless of the size or nature of the water reserves, the presence of extraterrestrial water at all in liquid form is an important find to astronomers.
Image credit: NASA/JPL/SSI