All Eyes On Enceladus

2 03 2010

Here’s the new awesomeness:

[click to huge-ify]

This image shows water-ice geysers erupting on Enceladus, a moon of Saturn.  It was taken by the Cassini spacecraft on a close flyby back in November, so obviously I’m behind everyone else on this.  The pass was only 1000 mi above its surface, revealing some pretty spectacular stuff — like these geysers.

Enceladus has been known to have these kinds of geysers for a while, but this pass confirmed 30 of them total.  And what you’re looking at in this image is them spewing water all the way into space!

I’ve always been fascinated by Enceladus because of the mix of elements you can find there.  It’s one of those places in the solar system that could has the slightest of chances of being able to harbor primitive life.  I’m really looking forward to future reports of the molecular makeup of this material.

Check out more about Cassini’s mission at




5 responses

2 03 2010

Beautiful. I’ve always loved Titan and Europa (the latter seems to be a pet of every ‘astrobiologist’ on Earth. Maybe some not on Earth?)

3 03 2010

How much of an atmosphere does it have / how high above the surface does “space” start?

3 03 2010

It doesn’t have much of an atmosphere at all, and something like 9/10ths of it is water vapor. Titan’s atmosphere is reminiscent of Venus, and I don’t believe Europa has a substantial atmosphere either.

But with Europa and Enceladus, there might be subterranean (subglacial may be a better term) pressurized oceans, and both moons reflect active tectonics.

3 03 2010

Well, I wouldn’t exactly think of Venus when talking about Titan. Those two are very different in composition, climate, and thickness.

Enceladus does have a tenuous atmosphere that isn’t sustainable without constant replenishment because of its low gravity. It’s actually a pretty small rock… only 500km in diameter. That’s 1/7 of the Moon’s and 1/23 of the Earth’s. Or, to put it another way, it’s only as wide as the state of Arkansas!

The fact that it was discovered as early as it was can only be attributed to its high reflectivity. Almost all the light that falls on it is reflected back into space. That means that the sun has practically no impact on heating the surface or the interior. How the water under its surface is being warmed is still a mystery.

4 03 2010

Too right about my Venus comparison.

I really like the idea of active volcanism and tectonics on moons. It must just be chauvinism, seeing our moon and thinking that other moons must be similar to it. But it’s still fascinating to me.

Also I had no idea Enceladus was that small. I guess the first thing that comes to mind for me when thinking of alien moons is the image of the giants of Titan and Ganymede, rather than the reality that most of the moons of other planets are actually itty bitty (well, comparatively. I doubt anyone would say that a ball of rock the size of Arkansas is “itty bitty” unless talking on that sort of scale).

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