We finally know why Saturn moon shoots silica into space

"Enceladus is giving us free samples of what's hidden deep below."
Chris Young
Jets of ice spewing from Enceladus.
Jets of ice spewing from Enceladus.

NASA / JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute 

Saturn's icy moon Enceladus shoots particles of frozen silica into space, and scientists might finally know why.

Scientists have long known that Enceladus spewed out icy silica that eventually made its way into Saturn's E ring, but they didn't have a good explanation as to why this was happening.

Now, a new study by a team at the University of California Los Angeles might provide the answer. Their research shows that tidal heating in Encealadus' rocky core creates currents that push the silica to the surface. Once there, it's likely released into space by deep-sea hydrothermal vents.

Uncovering the mysteries of an icy Saturn moon

Enceladus, one of 83 known moons of Saturn, is an ocean world that has a large volume of liquid water hidden beneath its icy surface. The new findings, which shed new light on the processes taking place beneath that icy surface, are based on data collected by NASA's Cassini spacecraft, which orbited Saturn from 2004 to 2017.

The icy silica starts off on the sea floor deep beneath the surface of Enceladus. Tidal forces caused by Saturn create currents in the watery ocean, starting a cycle that ends up with icy silica spewing into space.

"Our research shows that these flows are strong enough to pick up materials from the seafloor and bring them to the ice shell that separates the ocean from the vacuum of space," Ashley Schoenfeld, a doctoral student at UCLA, explained in a press statement. "The tiger-stripe fractures that cut through the ice shell into this subsurface ocean can act as direct conduits for captured materials to be flung into space. Enceladus is giving us free samples of what's hidden deep below."

Simulations reveal the inner workings of Enceladus

To reach their findings, the UCLA team led by Schoenfeld developed a model to simulate the process occurring on the Saturnian moon. "Our model provides further support to the idea that convective turbulence in the ocean efficiently transports vital nutrients from the seafloor to ice shell," said second author Emily Hawkins, a UCLA alumna who is now an assistant professor of physics at Loyola Marymount University.

The new study also sheds new light on the role of hydrothermal vents in Enceladus, revealing that they have an impact that is felt all the way to Saturn's rings. The simulation shows that the silica likely floats towards Saturn's E ring, meaning it helped to form the stunning feature. As hydrothermal vents played a key role in the formation of life on Earth, the new study is another indicator that icy moons may be the key to finding extraterrestrial life in our solar system.

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