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NASA's Cassini Discovers Potential Liquid Water on Enceladus

Thursday, March 9, 2006

Plumes of icy material extend above the southern polar region of Saturn's moon Enceladus as imaged by the Cassini spacecraft in February 2005. The monochrome view is presented along with a color-coded version on the right. The latter reveals a fainter and much more extended plume component.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft may have found evidence of liquid water reservoirs that erupt in Yellowstone-like geysers on Saturn's moon Enceladus. The rare occurrence of liquid water so near the surface raises many new questions about the mysterious moon.

"We realize that this is a radical conclusion --that we may have evidence for liquid water within a body so small and so cold," said Dr. Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging team leader at Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colo. "However, if we are right, we have significantly broadened the diversity of solar system environments where we might possibly have conditions suitable for living organisms."

High-resolution Cassini images show icy jets and towering plumes ejecting large quantities of particles at high speed. Scientists examined several models to explain the process. They ruled out the idea that the particles are produced by or blown off the moon's surface by vapor created when warm water ice converts to a gas. Instead, scientists have found evidence for a much more exciting possibility -- the jets might be erupting from near-surface pockets of liquid water above 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit), like cold versions of the Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone.

In the spring of 2008, scientists will get another chance to look at Enceladus when Cassini flies within 350 kilometers approximately 220 miles), but much work remains after Cassini's four-year prime mission is over.

Mission scientists report these and other Enceladus findings in this week's issue of Science.

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