The Cassini spacecraft has observed geysers erupting on Saturn’s moon Enceladus since 2005, but the process that drives and sustains these seemingly endless eruptions has remained a mystery.
Now scientists have pinpointed the mechanism by which cyclical tidal stresses exerted by Saturn can drive those long-lived eruptions.
“On Earth, eruptions don’t tend to continue for long,” says Edwin Kite, assistant professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago. “When you see eruptions that continue for a long time, they’ll be localized into a few pipe-like eruptions with wide spacing between them.”
But Enceladus, which probably has an ocean underlying its icy surface, has somehow managed to sprout multiple fissures along its south pole. These “tiger stripes” have been erupting vapor and tiny frost particles continuously along their entire length for decades and probably much longer.
A LEADING CANDIDATE FOR LIFE
“It’s a puzzle to explain why the fissure system doesn’t clog up with its own frost,” Kite says. “And it’s a puzzle to explain why the energy removed from the water table by evaporative cooling doesn’t just ice things over.”
What’s needed is an energy source to balance the evaporative cooling. “We think the energy source is a new mechanism of tidal dissipation that had not been previously considered,” says Kite, coauthor with Allan Rubin of Princeton University of a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“I was very happy to see this new work by Kite and Rubin that brings to the fore a process that had escaped notice: the pumping of water in and out of the deep fractures of the south polar ice shell by tidal action,” says Carolyn Porco, head of Cassini’s imaging science team and a leading scientist in the study of Enceladus.
Enceladus, which Kite calls “an opportunity for the best astrobiology experiment in the solar system,” serves as a leading candidate for extraterrestrial life. Cassini data have strongly indicated that the cryovolcanic plumes of Enceladus probably originate in a biomolecule-friendly oceanic environment.
Cryovolcanism also may have shaped the surface of Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. “Europa’s surface has many similarities to Enceladus’s surface, and I hope this model will be useful for Europa as well,” Kite says.
One of the problems that attracted Kite and Rubin was the anomalous tidal response of the Enceladus eruptions. The eruptions reach their peak approximately five hours later than expected—even when taking into account the 40 minutes needed for the erupted particles to reach the altitude at which Cassini can detect them. Scientists had previously suggested reasons for the lag, which included a delay in the eruptions as well as a squishy, slowly responding ice shell.
“The new proposal is really a way to get a delay in the eruptions. You really don’t need to propose any terribly squishy ice shell to do it,” Porco says.
Kite and Rubin also wanted to know why Enceladus maintains a base level of cryovolcanic activity, even when at that point in its orbit where the fissures should clamp shut and curtail the eruptions. Other key questions: Why does the volcanic system generate five gigawatts of power instead of a lot more or a lot less? Why don’t the eruptions frost over or freeze over?
PLUMBING ANSWERS THE QUESTIONS
The new computer model of the Enceladus plumbing system seems to answer them all. Their model consists of a series of nearly parallel, vertical slots that reach from the surface down to the water below. They applied Saturn’s tidal stresses to their model on a desktop computer and watched what happened.
“The only tricky part quantitatively is calculating the elastic interactions between the different slots and the varying water level within each slot as a response to the tidal stress,” Kite says. The width of the slots affects how quickly they can respond to the tidal forces. With wide slots, the eruptions respond quickly to tidal forcing. With narrow slots, the eruptions occur eight hours after the tidal forces reach their peak.
“In between there’s a sweet spot,” Kite says, where tidal forces turn water motion into heat, generating enough power to produce eruptions that match the observed five-hour lag. Porco called it “the best thing in my mind about this new work.”
Tidal pumping heats the water and the ice shell via turbulence. Kite and Rubin have proposed that new Cassini data can test this idea by revealing whether the ice shell in the south polar region is warm.
“If the new mechanism is a major contributor to the heat coming from the fractures, then the south polar ice in between the fractures may, in fact, be cold,” Porco says. Results from last year’s Enceladus flyby need to be analyzed to make that determination.
Kite and Douglas MacAyeal, professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago are interested in studying an Earth analogue to the Enceladus geysers. A crack has formed across a section of the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica, partially breaking it away from the continent.
“In that crack you have strong tidal flow, so it would be interesting to see what a real ice sheet does in an environment that’s analogous in terms of the amplitude of the stresses and the temperatures of the ice,” Kite says.
NASA funded the work; the study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Featured Photo Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
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