Sampling an alien ocean: Cassini prepares for deep dive through Enceladus’ geysers on Wednesday

Artist’s conception of Cassini making a close flyby of Enceladus and its water vapor plumes. Image Credit: NASA/JPL
Artist’s conception of Cassini making a close flyby of Enceladus and its water vapour plumes. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

Today, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015, the Cassini spacecraft will make a historic close flyby (dubbed “E21”) of Saturn’s tiny icy moon Enceladus, not only passing very close to the surface, but also making the deepest dive yet through the water vapour geysers which erupt from the south pole. These plumes are connected to a global ocean of salty water deep below the surface ice, which may be a habitable environment for some form of life.

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New evidence from Cassini indicates Saturn’s moon Enceladus has global subsurface ocean

Diagram depicting the interior of Enceladus, with the global ocean between the ice crust above and the rocky core below. The jets of water vapor erupt from fissures at the south pole. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Diagram depicting the interior of Enceladus, with the global ocean between the ice crust above and the rocky core below. The jets of water vapour erupt from fissures at the south pole. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Along with Jupiter’s moon Europa, Saturn’s moon Enceladus is considered to be one of the best places to look for evidence of life elsewhere in the Solar System, since both moons are now known to have liquid water beneath their icy surfaces. Now, new evidence suggests that Enceladus may be an even better candidate than first thought: data from the Cassini orbiter shows that the moon harbors a global ocean of water beneath the ice crust, just like Europa, instead of a smaller sea beneath the south pole as previously believed.

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Sinkholes on Titan: new study shows how hydrocarbon lakes may form by Earth-like erosion

Coloured mosaic of lakes near Titan’s north pole. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/USGS
Coloured mosaic of lakes near Titan’s north pole. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/USGS

Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, has seas and lakes of liquid methane and ethane dotting its surface, but one question scientists have been trying to figure out is how the hollows in the ground, which hold the lakes, form to begin with. Now, a new study offers a solution: The depressions in the surface are formed in a process similar to sinkholes on Earth.

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Saturn’s massive Phoebe ring even larger than previously thought

Image of the Phoebe ring taken in 2009, overlaid in tan colors. The ring is much larger than Saturn’s other more visible rings and is also tilted with respect to the other rings. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/U. Virginia
Image of the Phoebe ring taken in 2009, overlaid in tan colours. The ring is much larger than Saturn’s other more visible rings and is also tilted with respect to the other rings. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/U. Virginia

Saturn is truly the “Lord of the Rings” and one of the most majestic places in the Solar System. Its massive ring system is well-known, but in 2009 another previously unknown ring was discovered, much larger than the others but fainter, being composed of dark grains of dust thought to originate from the moon Phoebe. Now, new research indicates that the Phoebe ring is even larger than first thought.

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Just add water: scientists explain Saturn’s powerful thunderstorms

A giant storm in Saturn’s northern hemisphere, which now extends around the planet, as seen by the Cassini spacecraft. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
A giant storm in Saturn’s northern hemisphere, which now extends around the planet, as seen by the Cassini spacecraft. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Thunderstorms are a powerful force of nature, but the ones we experience on Earth are dwarfed by the ones on the gas giant planet Saturn. They are huge and can be larger than Earth itself, and now scientists think they know why they tend to appear most prominently every 20-30 years, encircling the entire planet with intense lightning and massive cloud disturbances.

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Cassini finds evidence for hydrothermal activity on Saturn’s moon Enceladus

Cutaway view depicting the interior of Enceladus. Water, salts, organics, and methane make their way from the hydrothermal vents on the ocean bottom to the surface through cracks in the icy crust, erupting as geysers. Image Credit: NASA/JPL
Cutaway view depicting the interior of Enceladus. Water, salts, organics, and methane make their way from the hydrothermal vents on the ocean bottom to the surface through cracks in the icy crust, erupting as geysers. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

The deep oceans on Earth are teeming with life, despite the cold and darkness, thanks to hydrothermal vents which provide needed heat and nutrients in an otherwise rather uncomfortable environment. Now, the first evidence has been found for current hydrothermal activity elsewhere in the Solar System: on the ocean bottom of Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

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Exploring an alien sea: NASA designs submarine to send to Titan

Artist’s conception of the Titan Submarine Phase I Conceptual Design. Much like submarines on Earth, the sub would explore the depths of one of Titan’s methane/ethane seas. Image Credit: NASA
Artist’s conception of the Titan Submarine Phase I Conceptual Design. Much like submarines on Earth, the sub would explore the depths of one of Titan’s methane/ethane seas. Image Credit: NASA

Who wouldn’t want to go explore an alien sea? It seems that NASA would certainly like to, and the agency has unveiled a new submarine design to hopefully do just that one day. The submarine would be sent to Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, to dive into one of the large liquid methane seas on the moon’s frigid surface; such a mission idea may sound like science fiction, but it’s not, and would be the first ever to explore a sea on another world which is both Earth-like in some ways, yet utterly alien in others.

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