New Behaviour at Enceladus South Pole


Saturn’s moon Enceladus showing the strange “tiger stripes” near the south pole where water rich geysers vent out of the moon into space.

Enceladus is Saturn’s mysterious icy moon, at only around the diameter of England, and with an odd terrain at it’s south pole called “Tiger stripes” where eruptions of water rich plumes are known to emanate from. This place is a puzzle to scientists, especially the southern regions where the surface is the youngest, meaning changes in the surface have occured far more recently than other areas of the moon. The southern region of Enceladus could be only about 500,000 years old, whereas the north of the satellite might be around 4.2 billion years old. So all activity on Enceladus seems to be going on at the south pole.

The massive gravitational pull of the gas giant Saturn has a heating effect on this icy satellite, and scientists believe that like Europa, this moon could also have a subsurface ocean of liquid water. But the gravitational tidal forces from Saturn do not explain the heat coming from the south of the moon. In this area the Nasa Cassini Spacecraft had detected a heat flow of the equivalent of at least twelve electric power plants, at least 6 gigawatts.

In the latest development from the Cassini Spacecraft, blobs of warm ice that rise to the surface in this region have been recently detected, these are very rare events. The rising of this warmer ice has the effect of churning everything around and influencing the frozen crust at the tiger stripes.

Diagram of the south pole of Enceladus depicting the water and ice movement. Image credit Nasa

Scientists have adapted models to simulate Enceladus that were designed to show the heat convection of the Earth’s crust. The models show that heating from the centre of the icy satellite would release bubbles of warmer lighter ice that would rise to the surface, kind of like hot wax rising in a lava lamp. When this rising movement happened it would also cause colder ice to sink down towards the interior.

While these rising blobs of warmer ice detected by Cassini fill in some pieces of the jigsaw for scientists, they do not completely explain the water rich eruptions from the tiger stripes and their formation.

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