Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Enceladus might have a saltwater ocean
Frank Postberg (Max Planck Institute, Germany) has a Nature letter on Cassini's detection of sodium salts in Saturn's E ring; see also this press release. This is a very interesting result, because it implies that Saturn's satellite Enceladus might have a liquid water ocean beneath its icy surface. Recall that in 2005, the Cassini spacecraft spotted geysers shooting tiny ice crystal from cracks in Enceladus' surface (pictured). Those ice grains go into orbit about Saturn and form that planet's tenuous E ring. During subsequent passages through the E ring, Cassini's dust detector was then used to determine the composition of those ice grains, and found them to contain salt at the 1% level. Because those ice grains originated inside Enceladus, Postberg and co-authors argue that these grain's high salinity is possible if, under Enceladus' ice, there is also a liquid ocean there that lies on top of a rocky core that is the source of the salt. Note that there is also an astrobiology angle here, too, since if Enceladus is warm enough to maintain a liquid water ocean, then there is also the possibility for ocean life there, too.