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Saturn’s moon Enceladus exhibits signs of hydrothermal activity

saturn-moon-enceladus-exhibits-signs-of-hydrothermal-activity

Data obtained by NASA's Cassini spacecraft provided first clear evidence that Saturn's moon Enceladus exhibits signs of present-day hydrothermal activity which may resemble that seen in the deep oceans on Earth. The implications of such activity on a world other than our planet open up unprecedented scientific possibilities. 

John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington said these findings add to the possibility that Enceladus, which contains a subsurface ocean and displays remarkable geologic activity, could contain environments suitable for living organisms.

Hydrothermal activity occurs when seawater infiltrates and reacts with a rocky crust and emerges as a heated, mineral-laden solution, a natural occurrence in Earth's oceans. According to two science papers, the results are the first clear indications an icy moon may have similar ongoing active processes.

The first paper, published this week in the journal Nature, relates to microscopic grains of rock detected by Cassini in the Saturn system. An extensive, four-year analysis of data from the spacecraft, computer simulations and laboratory experiments led researchers to the conclusion the tiny grains most likely form when hot water containing dissolved minerals from the moon's rocky interior travels upward, coming into contact with cooler water. Temperatures required for the interactions that produce the tiny rock grains would be at least 90 degrees Celsius (194 degrees Fahrenheit).

"It's very exciting that we can use these tiny grains of rock, spewed into space by geysers, to tell us about conditions on – and beneath – the ocean floor of an icy moon," said the paper's lead author Sean Hsu, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Cassini's cosmic dust analyzer (CDA) instrument repeatedly detected miniscule rock particles rich in silicon, even before Cassini entered Saturn's orbit in 2004. By process of elimination, the CDA team concluded these particles must be grains of silica, which is found in sand and the mineral quartz on Earth. The consistent size of the grains observed by Cassini, the largest of which were 6 to 9 nanometers, was the clue that told the researchers a specific process likely was responsible.

On Earth, the most common way to form silica grains of this size is hydrothermal activity under a specific range of conditions; namely, when slightly alkaline and salty water that is super-saturated with silica undergoes a big drop in temperature.

"We methodically searched for alternate explanations for the nanosilica grains, but every new result pointed to a single, most likely origin," said co-author Frank Postberg, a Cassini CDA team scientist at Heidelberg University in Germany.

Hsu and Postberg worked closely with colleagues at the University of Tokyo who performed the detailed laboratory experiments that validated the hydrothermal activity hypothesis. The Japanese team, led by Yasuhito Sekine, verified the conditions under which silica grains form at the same size Cassini detected. The researchers think these conditions may exist on the seafloor of Enceladus, where hot water from the interior meets the relatively cold water at the ocean bottom.

The extremely small size of the silica particles also suggests they travel upward relatively quickly from their hydrothermal origin to the near-surface sources of the moon's geysers. From seafloor to outer space, a distance of about 50 kilometers (30 miles), the grains spend a few months to a few years in transit, otherwise they would grow much larger.

The authors point out that Cassini's gravity measurements suggest Enceladus' rocky core is quite porous, which would allow water from the ocean to percolate into the interior. This would provide a huge surface area where rock and water could interact.

This illustration depicts potential origins of methane found in the plume of gas and ice particles that sprays from Saturn's moon, Enceladus, based on research by scientists working with the Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer on NASA's Cassini mission. Image credit: Southwest Research Institute.

The second paper, published in Geophysical Research Letters, suggests hydrothermal activity as one of two likely sources of methane in the plume of gas and ice particles that erupts from the south polar region of Enceladus. The finding is the result of extensive modeling by French and American scientists to address why methane, as previously sampled by Cassini, is curiously abundant in the plume.

The team found that, at the high pressures expected in the moon's ocean, icy materials called clathrates could form that imprison methane molecules within a crystal structure of water ice. Their models indicate that this process is so efficient at depleting the ocean of methane that the researchers still needed an explanation for its abundance in the plume.

In one scenario, hydrothermal processes super-saturate the ocean with methane. This could occur if methane is produced faster than it is converted into clathrates. A second possibility is that methane clathrates from the ocean are dragged along into the erupting plumes and release their methane as they rise, like bubbles forming in a popped bottle of champagne.

The authors agree both scenarios are likely occurring to some degree, but they note that the presence of nanosilica grains, as documented by the other paper, favors the hydrothermal scenario.

Source: NASA/JPL

Featured image: Cutaway view of Saturn's moon Enceladus, artist's impression. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

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