NASA announced on Monday that, using data collected over the years by the Cassini space probe now orbiting Saturn, it has identified 101 distinct geysers that are shooting up ice crystals and water vapor on Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus. Analysis has shown that the likely source of the water is a deep ocean thought to exist beneath the ice crust of the moon. The ocean is similar to the one thought to exist on Jupiter’s moon Europa.
When the geysers were first imaged in 2005, scientists believed that the fissures in the ice crust were caused by tidal forces due to the gravity of the nearby moon Dione, with heat generated by the constant friction of the walls of the fissures. However now scientists have determined that the hot spots noted to coincide with the fissures are the result of the condensation of water vapor on the near-surface walls of the fissures. The cracks remain open from the surface of Enceladus all the way down to the subsurface ocean six miles deep.
Previous studies suggest that the subsurface ocean of Enceladus, which lays beneath the moon’s South Pole, is thought to be roughly the size of Lake Superior but is much deeper. It contains not only water but organic compounds. The water is so warm that the South Polar region of Enceladus pumps out 15.8 gigawatts of heat-generated power, roughly equivalent to the output of 20 coal-fired power plants.
The subsurface ocean lays on top of a rocky surface. This means that the possibility exists that chemical processes are taking place that could lead to the evolution of life. Just as with Europa, Enceladus may hold a habitat that is teaming with life kept warm by tidal forces and shielded by six miles of ice. That makes the moon a prime target for further investigation.