Fountains of water and ice squirt into space from the near the south pole of Enceladus, one of the moons of Saturn, as depicted in this diagram. The water may come from an underground ocean that contains the chemistry and energy needed to support microscopic life. [NASA/JPL]
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Water Worlds III
The most impressive water fountain in the solar system squirts out from the south pole of Enceladus, a moon of Saturn. Water and ice shoot hundreds of miles into space.
The fountain may be powered by Saturn itself. The distance between Saturn and Enceladus varies. As the gap widens and narrows, Saturn’s gravity squeezes the interior of Enceladus. Friction from the constant flexing heats the moon’s core. That generates enough energy to melt some of the ice around the core, creating a deep ocean of liquid water between the core and the crust. And a recent study says that process could have been going on for billions of years.
The study’s authors created models of the interior of Enceladus to help explain the jets of water and ice detected by Cassini, a craft that orbited Saturn for more than a decade.
The models show that water from the ocean may drip through cracks in the core. As the water descends it’s heated, which makes it rise back toward the surface. The hot water percolates through the rocks, picking up bits of minerals. It then squirts back into the ocean through vents on the ocean floor.
Plumes of warm water slowly rise through the ocean and melt some of the ice above it, forming thin spots in the crust. Cracks in the thinner crust then allow some of the water to squirt out into space — forming the solar system’s most impressive water fountain.
We’ll talk about water worlds in other star systems tomorrow.
Script by Damond Benningfield