Could Saturn’s Enceladus Hide an Ocean?

Icy plumes on Enceladus in a 2005 image from the Cassini spacecraft.  Image credit: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA

Icy plumes on Enceladus in a 2005 image from the Cassini spacecraft. Image credit: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA

Saturn’s moon Enceladus was the focus of attention in 2005 when astronomers detected jets of ice and gas spraying out from the moon’s icy surface.  Since then scientists have been investigating the possibility that liquid oceans beneath the moon’s frozen surface might be source of the spray.  If Enceladus has liquid water, this would increase the likelihood that it also hosts extraterrestrial microbes.

This week Nature published two new studies that offer very different conclusions regarding the possibility of oceans on Enceladus.  Both studies looked for sodium near Enceladus, a sign that would point toward liquid water.  One study found sodium, but the other did not.

Although researchers were unable to discover an definitive answer, they may be able to uncover more data from the Cassini spacecraft.  Having completed its original four-year mission in June 2008, NASA is extending the  orbiter’s stay around Saturn for the new Cassini Equinox Mission, which is scheduled to last through September 2010.  For more information on the two Enceladus studies, see ScienceNews.

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