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The source of Enceladus geysers may not be the subsurface ocean

Enceladus, Saturn’s icy moon, spews columns of water vapor into space. Scientists thought the columns originated from a deep submarine ocean, but the new simulations offer a different interpretation.

According to the results of these simulations, which were presented in the form of an article at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, this water may come out of holes filled with ice and water in the icy crust of the moon.

“The furrows that carry this water to the surface may not penetrate all the depths of the crust and lead us to the subsurface ocean, reaching only one of these holes,” said Jacob Bafu, a planetary scientist at Dartmouth College.

According to Bafu, this finding could be a warning. The hidden ocean has made Enceladus one of the best targets for life in the solar system. Conceptual plans for future missions to Enceladus are based on the idea that the specimens from these columns represent the composition of the subsurface ocean, meaning that Enceladus does not need to dig or melt ice to reach the ocean. But new simulations show that with this method we may sample a slurry-like range in the middle of the crust that may not be the same as the chemical composition of the ocean beneath it.

Enceladus has fascinated planetary scientists since NASA’s Cassini spacecraft discovered its lunar pillars in 2005. Researchers initially thought the sprays had their roots in the icy surface of Enceladus, where friction from ice sheets could cause the ice to melt and escape as pure water vapor into space. But further evidence gathered by Cassini convinced most scientists that these geysers pass through fractures inside the crust that have their roots in a subsurface saline sea.

According to Colin Meyer, a physicist at Dartmouth College, one of the strongest evidences of the existence of the subsurface ocean was the observation of salts in the composition of these water columns. The previous seismic hypothesis could not explain the existence of these salts, according to which any salt in the melted ice must remain on the surface of the moon in the process of water escaping into space; Like salt that stays on the skin after sweating.

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Dr. Mir, who studied the physics of ice in Earth’s seas, found that packets of water melted in the ice sheet could concentrate salts and other compounds. Together with Bafu and his colleagues, he used models developed to simulate the planet Earth’s sea ice for the conditions observed on Enceladus. The team found that ice and water packets could easily form in the shell of Enceladus, bringing all of its contents, including salts, to the surface and eventually to space.

According to Mir, these findings do not mean that Enceladus does not have an ocean below its surface. Bafu adds that this does not mean that the ocean is uninhabitable.

“The impact of these results is huge; Especially for the proposed missions to find life on Enceladus. “If the pillars are not connected to the ocean, our view of what we are told from within the enclosure will change completely, and that is very important.”


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