content long 11-December-2017 12:02:48

Winners Germany

16-18 years old: Ice plumes at the south pole of Enceladus

 Author: Jan Fischer

The Cassini spacecraft has been orbiting Saturn since 2004 and successfully landed the Huygens probe on the moon ‘Titan’ in January 2005. Before it will drop onto Saturn in September 2017 it could travel to one of the following possible destinations: the ‘great lakes’ of Titan, the north of the planet itself with a hexagonal shaped cloud pattern, or ice plumes at the south pole of Enceladus - one of Saturn’s moons.

The mystery of Saturn’s hexagonal cloud pattern has been solved: Physicists at Oxford University have been able to recreate this cloud pattern in an experiment. Therefore, further images of this phenomenon would be, although pretty, of little scientific relevance.

Titan’s oceans: Kraken-, Ligeia-, and Punga Mare are fascinating. Giant pools of ethane and methane that in theory might even support life should be explored and studied further, no doubt about that. But with the few possibilities we have for those explorations, at least for now, we must prioritize. And the south pole of Enceladus will lead to more scientifically relevant revelations.

Enceladus is Saturn’s sixth largest moon. It is about 500 km in diameter, has a great ice shell at its surface with liquid water underneath it, and is believed to be the most likely candidate to support some form of life in our solar system, apart from Earth. Finding life on an alien rock would be another ‘giant leap for mankind’!

Now, our Cassini ship was not designed to analyze an environment with focus on whether it can support life. Cassini takes pictures with wide- and narrow angle cameras and it can create images with an ultraviolet spectrograph enabling it to ‘see’ beyond the visible spectrum of light. But it also has a cosmic dust analyzer which detects the composition of particles that hit the spacecraft. With that, Cassini can analyze particles that have been blast out of the moon by the ice plumes at the south, and so it might find microorganisms that have lived in the ocean under the ice. In 2015, a similar project was already conducted with promising results for possible life forms, it would be helpful to see if in two years there have been changes in the composition of the dust and to gain more samples that lead us to a definite answer: ‘Yes, there is life on Enceladus’ or ‘no, there is not’.

Further images from a close distance will also reveal more about the development of the ice geysers whose emission dropped from 2005 to 2015 by maybe 40 percent. Old geysers shut down and some new ones erupt – this progress could be observed in detail if we get new data in the following year.

'Enceladus’ spectacular cryovolcanic activity, tectonic resurfacing, and the presence of a plume of water and other materials erupting from its south pole make it a compelling target for astrobiological exploration.” - Physicist and Astronomist Christopher D. Parkinson from his paper: ‘Habitability of Enceladus: Planetary Conditions for Life’


Last Update: 19 May 2017

For further information please contact: SciTech.editorial@esa.int

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