Saltwater Ocean on Saturn Moon Enceladus


Figure 4: Enceladus (top left) transits Titan,...

Figure 4: Enceladus (top left) transits Titan, as seen from Cassini on February 5, 2006. Enceladus was 4.1 million km away, and Titan a further 1.2 million km. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Figure 4: Enceladus (top left) transits Titan, as seen from Cassini on February 5, 2006. Enceladus was 4.1 million km away, and Titan a further 1.2 million km. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 Astronomers in charge of the Cassini space probe are excited, because they have discovered a deep saltwater ocean on Enceladus, one of the many small moons orbiting the gas giant Saturn. This find means that the scientists now think this moon even more likely than Europa to be the place in the solar system where extraterrestrial life might be found.


Enceladus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The probe took gravitational field measurements which revealed, beneath the icy surface of Enceladus, at the moon’s south pole, a 10km-deep ocean of water, larger than Lake Superior, a body of water was so large it might extend halfway or more towards the equator in every direction, according to Pasadena California Institute of Technology planetary expert David Stevenson.



It is this newly found a saltwater ocean, over a billion kilometres away – that renders Enceladus such a promising habitat, alongside many elements present that are known to be vital for life, such as phosphorus, sulphur and potassium. The existence of this ocean was suspected since 2005, when Cassini photographed water jets exploding from of fissures at the moon’s south pole.

 Reported in the journal Science, this new discovery was made by Rome Sapienza University boffin Luciano Less and an international team, the conclusions inferred from measurements made between April 2010 and May 2012, which brought the Cassini spacecraft within 100km of Enceladus, seeking subtle shifts in the frequency of radio-waves, a measuring technique exploiting the Doppler effect.

Figure 5: NASA JPL to-scale size comparison of...

Figure 5: NASA JPL to-scale size comparison of Enceladus. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The scientists concluded that changes in speed f the spacecraft came due to gravitational field variations in the moon caused by different densities of below surface materials, which suggested something denser than ice, but less dense than rock, deep below the south pole, which could only be water. It is gravitational forces from Saturn, acting on Enceladus, which produce enough heat to keep the inside of the moon warm enough to support liquid water, process known as tidal heating.

Europa is, of course, a much larger moon orbiting Jupiter, witha more extensive, below surface ocean under the surface, yet what made Enceladus special was the fact that south pole vapour plumes contain organic molecules, making the moon a prime candidate in the alien organisms search. It is felt that there are definitely regions on Enceladus where conditions would allow for life to exist.

Scientists are certain that liquid water, chemicals and heat are the basic essentials for life, and now rate Enceladus the best place to find life elsewhere in the solar system, so a mission may need to be launched specifically to perform  an Enceladus flyby mission. This could collect and return samples of the water vapour plumes, as well as seeking for bio-molecular evidence of life, and on return to earth, could allow terrestrial laboratories to test for conclusive evidence for life by searching for organic bio-markers.

English: The orbit of Enceladus around Saturn,...

English: The orbit of Enceladus around Saturn, showing its position among Saturn’s inner moons. (Only the largest moons are shown). Image created using Celestia software. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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