Data gathered by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft suggests that there may be a global ocean under the icy crust of Enceladus, Saturn’s sixth-largest moon.
NASA researchers believe that the moon’s awkward trajectory around Saturn may only be explained by the presence of a global ocean. And the Cassini probe detected evidence of this ocean at the moon’s south pole where its instruments reported organic molecules, water vapor, and frozen particles.
Past interpretations of Cassini data made scientists believe that the ocean may be located at the south pole, but a recent analysis of gravity data collected by the craft during its flybys shows that the sea may be of global scale. Moreover, an analysis of imagery taken by the probe confirms the latest theory.
Peter Thomas, Cassini mission investigator and researcher at Cornell University, explained that his team came up with the idea of a global ocean after years of studies and calculations.
NASA researchers sifted through data collected over the course of more than seven years to reach the final conclusions. Cassini has been studying Saturn and its moons since 2004. The team analyzed hundreds of Enceladus’ craters and closely watched changes in the space body’s orbit.
After several years, the team finally had an aha moment. They noticed that there was a subtle wobble in the moon’s trajectory as it orbits Saturn. From that wobble researchers were able to find that the moon had to have a liquid layer between its core and the surface.
Matthew Tiscareno, a SETI scientist involved in the Cassini mission, argued that if the moon was solid from surface through its core the wobble would be significantly smaller than it currently is.
“This proves that there must be a global layer of liquid separating the surface from the core,”
Tiscareno also said.
But scientists couldn’t tell how that layer stayed in a liquid state. Some of the study authors believe that the tidal forces emitted by Saturn could heat up the moon in an unexpected way.
A Cassini mission investigator from the Boulder-based Space Science Institute (SSI) said that the finding was a huge step forward for space exploration since another long-lived mission finally pays off.
Scientists learned that Enceladus had an icy crust ten years ago. The analysis continued with new findings that suggested the moon was still geologically active. Among those findings were the warm fractures at one of its poles.
Last year, mission investigators announced that the moon may host a local sea, while early this year NASA scientists found signs of hydrothermal activity on the seabed.
Image Source: Wikimedia
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