Beneath the icy crust of Saturn's moon, Enceladus, lies an active aquatic world. Back in 2005, NASA's Cassini spacecraft had captured for the first time water jets, which were gushing out of the icy surface of the satellite, located near the south of Enceladus.
Based on this observation, scientists had concluded that a global ocean is surely buried beneath the icy crust of Enceladus. However, a new study states that the ocean may not be buried very deep from the surface, and is now close enough to be spotted by a radar.
Enceladus And Its Tiger Stripes
The new study, based on microwave interpretations of the region, shows that Saturn's moon is a lot warmer than expected, and the ocean may now lie only a few miles away from its icy surface. In 2005, the plumes of water that gushed out into space from the South Pole of Enceladus originated from four warm fractures on the surface of Saturn's moon, commonly known as "Tiger Stripes".
Since then, many flybys have been conducted in an attempt to understand the subsurface composition of Enceladus' ocean. The scientists suggest that it is similar to the subsurface ocean present on Europa, which is Jupiter's moon.
However, data gathered during a 2011 flyby showed that Enceladus' subsurface ocean may be much nearer to the surface than was previously estimated.
"During this flyby, we obtained the first and, unfortunately, only high-resolution observations of Enceladus' South Pole at microwave wavelengths," said Alice Le Gall, the lead scientist of the study
Gall further added that the observations made during the 2011 flyby, have given researchers and scientists a unique insight into the activities that are taking place beneath the icy surface of Enceladus. She said that the images captured during the flyby reveal that the first few meters of the surface area, that was under investigation, is much warmer than it was earlier deduced. Some places were 20 K warmer than the others.
Galls says that the warming may be caused due to sun's illumination to some extent. Moreover, the additional warming may be due to heat being emanated from Saturn.
Possibility Of Alien Life?
Enceladus is now being considered as a front runner for hosting alien life in its subsurface oceans, given that some areas of the moon are much warmer than the others.
The study conducted by Dr. Gall and her collaborators covered a narrow arc shaped area at the South Pole of the region. The observed swathe is about 311 miles long, almost 16 miles wide and is located just 19 to 31 miles north of the tiger-striped fractures.
The study has been published in journal Nature Astronomy.