Discussion and news about the modern effort to understand the nature of life on Earth, finding planets around other stars, and the search for life elsewhere in the universe

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Springtime on Enceladus

What a difference seven years can make. Before 2004 Saturn's moon Enceladus was just another of the 61 significant natural satellites in this system. Yes, it was exceptionally reflective, its snowy white surface pretty much the highest reflectivity of any body in the solar system. Yes, it appeared to have a particularly youthful, less cratered surface, as seen by Voyager 2's brief incursion. This was an intriguing but incomplete suggestion of geophysical activity. But overall there really wasn't anything that suggested it would be more than another of the beautifully individual large moons around the great ringed world.

Then along comes Cassini. Not only did Enceladus show clear signs of a complex and geophysically active (or is that cryophysically active?) surface but it was spewing what seemed to be geysers of icy water particles out into the cold space of the Saturnian system. Scanning towards its southern polar region revealed that the great 'tiger-stripe' fissures were significantly hotter than their surroundings - although still frigid by our terrestrial standards.

Enceladus is an active, albeit tiny, world. Later flybys and flythroughs of the plumes of water have revealed the presence of salts, ammonia, simple hydrocarbons and even dust. The presence of these things suggests that somewhere inside Enceladus there is liquid water in contact with rock. Whether there is a global subsurface ocean or localized lakes is still unclear. At the southern pole then deep fissures are venting some of this pressurized water out to space. What's keeping the interior of Enceladus warm is unknown. Tidal flexure resulting from interaction with the moon Dione and Saturn's great gravitational field could provide some heating at present, but not enough. The radioactive decay of elements within a rocky core might be a significant heat provider, but the apparent localization towards the southern pole may suggest some internal lopsidedness.

It's incredible that this tiny world, just over 300 miles across and 4.5 billion years old, is still stirring. Now, the latest results from Cassini have put a better limit on just how much cooking Enceladus is doing. It is pumping out about 16 Gigawatts of thermal energy, equivalent to almost three times as much as all of Yellowstone National Park here on Earth. Since present tidal heating could at most only account for 1-2 Gigawatts this is very firm evidence that either Enceladus is still releasing pent-up energy from an earlier epoch where the moon orbits and tides were different, or that unexpectedly high
radiogenic heating is the primary energy source. Either option increases the odds of a substantial subsurface liquid water ocean.

The notion that long-term/short-term variations in moon orbits might be responsible is particularly intriguing. The idea here is that the orbits of Enceladus and its neighbor Dione may experience temporary variations that result in short episodes of intense tidal flexure on Enceladus. The thermal energy then takes time to escape through the icy crust - squeezing out as we see it, through places like the polar tiger stripes. This seems to be supported by the claimed high level of argon gas in the plumes. Argon in a planetary environment comes from radioactive decay of potassium-40. If Enceladus had been venting steadily for more than about 10 million years we would expect it to have already lost its argon. The simplest explanation is that the venting of material is episodic.

What does this mean for Enceladus as a potential harbor for life? It's unclear. If Enceladus freezes up solid in-between heating episodes then that could be a tough deal for organisms that somehow inhabit a subsurface environment. If on the other hand it just simmers down to an extended internal winter before the next summer in a few hundred thousand, or million years, then pockets of water could perhaps sustain hibernating life. Maybe Enceladus is like a perennial bulb, budding and flowering every spring, before withering and overwintering again until woken by gravity's warming embrace.

1 comment:

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