How deep does silica penetrate the geysers of Saturn’s moon Enceladus?

The frozen silica particles ejected from Saturn’s moon Enceladus draw their energy from the moon’s frozen core, which is squeezed and stretched by Saturn’s irresistible gravity.

These particles start their journey from Enceladus’s vast ocean floor and, along with large amounts of water vapor, are launched into space from the geysers of the “tiger stripe” fields at the moon’s south pole. The geyser material eventually enters Saturn’s E ring (Saturn’s outermost and lowest ring) and thus contributes to one of the most spectacular phenomena in the solar system.

Until today, scientists did not know what process brought silica particles into the geysers of Saturn’s sixth largest moon (out of 83). Also, they did not know about the time required for this process to happen.

Enceladus geysers
Enceladus geysers spew water vapor, silica particles, and other materials into space.

A group of researchers led by Ashley Schoenfeld, a doctoral student in planetary sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, collected data on Enceladus’ orbit, its ocean, and its geological characteristics that NASA’s Cassini spacecraft had collected during its orbit around Saturn from 2004 to 2017. had collected, analyzed.

They concluded that as the moon—with an icy mantle that is the most reflective surface in the Solar System—orbits Saturn, the gas giant’s gravitational pull creates gravitational forces that compress and expand Enceladus’ core. This deformation creates friction that heats Enceladus’ global ocean floor, which in turn creates strong currents that can transport silica from the floor to the ocean surface.

“Our research shows that these currents are strong enough to lift material from the ocean floor and into the ice sheet that separates the ocean from the void,” Schoenfeld said. Tigris vein structures that bore holes in this ice shell and reach beneath it could act as direct conduits for ejecting material into space. “Enceladus gives us free samples of what’s hidden deep inside.”

The model developed by the research team helps confirm theories of hydrothermal activity. Scientists have been working on these theories since Cassini passed through Enceladus’ eruptions and detected large amounts of hydrogen gas and silica. The spacecraft first flew past Saturn’s sixth largest moon in 2005, and its last approach was in 2015.

Schoenfeld and his team’s findings also provide a valid framework for particles being ejected into space, as well as a mechanism to explain why the vapors contain silica. This is also useful for explaining how other materials reach the moon’s frozen surface.

Hydrothermal vents of the Earth's oceans
Enceladus’ deep ocean processes are similar to oceanic hydrothermal vents on Earth, one of the first sources of nourishment for life.

“Our model provides further support for the idea that convective turbulence in the ocean effectively transports essential nutrients from the seafloor to the frozen crust,” said Emily Hawkins, a research associate and professor of physics at Loyola Marymount University. “Transfers.”

The mechanism the team described is similar to the activity we see around hydrothermal vents in Earth’s deep seas. Here, these pores are home to a wide variety of organisms that feed on the material expelled from them.

NASA is designing several possible missions to pass by, orbit, or even land on Enceladus. These missions could collect data that would enable scientists to further investigate the moon’s hydrothermal vents; Including the possible search for life around these phenomena.

This new research can be a guide for these plans. The research team plans to build additional models that can help shape local studies on this fascinating snowball moon.

This research was published last month in the journal Communications Earth & Environment.

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