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Saturn's Moon Enceladus: Contender For Life?

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Published on August 9th, 2011 | by Yellow Magpie


Saturn’s Moon Enceladus: Contender For Life?


Saturn’s Moon Enceladus

An ice encrusted world beyond the rocky planets, nestled in the heart of the gas giants, is perplexing scientists. Saturn’s moon Enceladus may have one or two mysterious to reveal.

A relatively small moon, Enceladus is just over 500 kilometres in width (310 miles). Orbiting Saturn at a distance of 237,000 kilometres (147,000 miles), it takes the satellite just under 33 hours to complete one journey around the planet.

Saturn’s Moon Enceladus: The Ice Coated World

One of the most prominent features of Saturn’s moon Enceladus is its white appearance. The moon is the most reflective satellite in the Solar System and has the highest albedo value. If one were to design the perfect snowball world, Enceladus would surely spring to mind.

On the surface Saturn’s moon Enceladus is insufferably cold with a mean temperature of minus 198 degree Celsius (minus 324 degrees Fahrenheit).

Saturn's Moon Enceladus (The Tiger Stripes Are Shown Coloured Blue)

The pristine nature of Saturn’s moon Enceladus’s surface and the fact that the entire moon was relatively unblemished by craters suggests that something powerful had or still was reshaping the satellite’s surface. Upon closer examination it was discovered that Saturn’s Enceladus had many craters but all of them were in various states of deformation or degradation.

The Mystery Of The Tiger Stripes

Something that also grabbed astronomers’ attention were thin stripes that contained a bluish hue scouring parts of the moon. The most prominent of these were the so-called ‘tiger stripes’ in Saturn’s moon Enceladus’s southern hemisphere.

The mystery was further deepened when the Cassini probe discovered that the moon was venting plumes of water and trace amounts of ammonia, carbon dioxide and nitrogen.

Thermal scans of the tiger stripes have revealed that these areas are up to 20 degrees Celsius (36 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer that the surrounding surface. In other words, Saturn’s moon Enceladus was being heated somehow and this heat source was responsible for the plumes that were being ejected into space..

Saturn's Moon Enceladus Venting Plumes

How Is Enceladus Heated?

Scientists immediately began to ask the quesiton as to how Saturn’s moon Enceladus, a small moon, was being heated. The heating was too intense to be tidal heating alone, like what occurs in other moons such as Europa and Ganymeade. Tidal heating was undoubtedly occurring but this was only part of the story.

It is now believed the heat produced by the radioactive decay of elements within Enceladus’s core, together with tidal heating, is responsible for this phenomenon.

The Strong Possibility Of Life

Despite earlier scepticism about an underground ocean residing beneath the crust of Saturn’s Enceladus, it is now believed that the moon does indeed harbour a salty ocean. The salty composition of the plumes being vented by the moon has strengthened further this belief.

Where there is a liquid water ocean and salt, there is a strong possibility for life. Like Europa, and other strong contenders for life in the Solar System, it is unlikely that we will actually find the answer until we send people there to look for themselves.

Highly Recommended Reading

Check out Yellow Magpie’s The Planet Saturn: The Ringed Wonder Of The Solar System for more insight into the largest planet in the Solar System.

You may also wish to take a gander at The Solar System And Beyond: A Guide To The Cosmos.

Cosmos is a highly recommended book. It contains large, full-page pictures of the asteroids and writing on the subject by the highly competent author, Giles Sparrow.

For people living in Ireland or the United Kingdom, you can access: Cosmos from here.

For those who live in Canada, you can obtain: Cosmos here.

For Germany: Cosmos.

For France: Cosmos.

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