A few years back, scientists saw plumes of water vapor shooting out of the ice-covered surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. They determined that these plumes are signs of a liquid ocean trapped under the ice, raising hopes that the small moon might be home to life.
Now new research suggests we’ve actually underestimated the extent of water erupting from Enceladus. A analysis of photos taken by NASA’s Cassini probe indicates there are actually long curtains of material shooting out of cracks in the ice — some up to 75 miles long.
The curtains of water vapor leaking from Enceladus
The researchers, led by Joseph Spitale of the Planetary Science Institute, looked at new, high-resolution images of Enceladus taken by Cassini. They noted that what had previously appeared as about 100 distinct, isolated plumes in previous photos seemed to be surrounded by hazy, smaller jets of material.
Enceladus’s icy surface has four long cracks called “tiger stripes” — and the scientists suspected that traces of water might actually be leaking out of the entire length of them.
To test the idea, they modeled what faint curtains of vapor might look like to Cassini, and found that they’d mostly be difficult to spot — except in a few spots where the cracks bend, where they’d appear as a dense plume. These spots line up exactly with where Cassini has seen the more prominent plumes.
This makes it seem very likely that long curtains of water are shooting out of Enceladus’s surface, rather than a hundred or so individual jets. If we ever send a spacecraft there to Enceladus look for signs of life, this could make it much easier to collect water samples.
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SOURCE: Vox, Joseph Stromberg