Saturn's Moon Does Harbor an Ocean, New Evidence Suggests

Mystery of Saturn's Watery Moon Solved
Researchers think the geysers on one of Saturn's moons, Enceladus, are formed from liquid water beneath the surface near the moon's South Pole. The vapor treks through little channels in the ice and condenses to form ice crystals that also move toward the moon's surface. That results in jets of water vapor and ice grains spewing from the surface. (Image credit: NASA/JPL)

Icy plumes of water vapor erupting from Saturn's moonEnceladus have left scientists divided over whether a liquid ocean lies hiddenbeneath the icy surface. Now evidence from a 2008 plume fly-through by NASA'sCassini spacecraft has turned up short-lived water ions that suggest liquidwater does indeed exist inside the moon.

Negatively charged ions represent atoms that have moreelectrons than protons, and they seem relatively rare in the solar system. Scientistshave found negative ions only on Earth, Saturn'smoon Titan, the comets and now Enceladus. But negative water ions appear onEarth's surface only where ocean waves or waterfalls keep liquid water inmotion ? a suggestive hint of liquid water also in motion somewhere insideEnceladus

Cassini's plasma spectrometer also turned up negativelycharged ions of hydrocarbons, or compounds made entirely of hydrogen andcarbon.

"While it's no surprise that there is water there,these short-lived ions are extra evidence for sub-surface water and where there'swater, carbon and energy, some of the major ingredients for life arepresent," said Andrew Coates, a planetary scientist at the UniversityCollege London and lead author on the latest Cassini study.

The measurements came from samples collected duringCassini's icy plunge into an Enceladus plume on March 12, 2008. TheU.S.-European spacecraft first discovered the existence of such plumes in 2005,which shoot thousands of miles into space. Many of the icy particles and watervapor eventually escape the moon's gravity entirely and help create Saturn'shuge outermost ring, called the E-ring.

Cassini's repeateddips into the icy plumes of Enceladus have fueled debate about thepossibility of a saltyocean that lies hidden on Saturn's sixth largest moon. Many scientiststhink that the geysers not only represent good evidence of liquid water, butalso mark Enceladus as a possible world for life to arise.

Still, other studies challenged the liquid ocean idea byarguing that the water vapor in the plumes could have just as easilytransformed directlyfrom solid ice, in the process known was sublimation.

The new discovery of negatively charged water ions maytilt the balance of evidence once more in favor of a liquid ocean. And at leastonce physicist, Brian Cox at the University of Manchester in the UK, hasalready handed out a wink and a nod to the group of Cassini scientists headedby Carolyn Porco.

"You always said to me that you'd find water onEnceladus :-)" wrote Cox to Porco today via Twitter.

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at:

Contributing Writer

Jeremy Hsu is science writer based in New York City whose work has appeared in Scientific American, Discovery Magazine, Backchannel, and IEEE Spectrum, among others. He joined the and Live Science teams in 2010 as a Senior Writer and is currently the Editor-in-Chief of Indicate Media.  Jeremy studied history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania, and earned a master's degree in journalism from the NYU Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. You can find Jeremy's latest project on Twitter