Coates, Andrew J. Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College, London, United Kingdom.
- Exploration history
- Cassini observations
- Causes of geologic activity
- Effects of activity
- Life in the outer solar system?
- Links to Primary Literature
- Additional Readings
Until the Cassini-Huygens mission began exploring the Saturn system in 2004, the diminutive moon Enceladus was thought to be just another small icy moon of Saturn, perhaps a source of particles for the tenuous E ring discovered in 1966. Since Cassini's first close flyby of Enceladus in 2005, it has become clear that the textbooks need to be rewritten. Rather than having a bit part in Saturn's cosmic drama, with the main role played by the distant and fascinating moon Titan, Enceladus has stolen the show in the region near to Saturn and co-stars in the overall system. Orbiting at 3.95 Saturn radii (a distance of 238,000 km or 148,000 mi), and with a diameter of 500 km (310 mi), Enceladus produces huge plumes of ice grains and neutral water molecules from its south polar region. The plumes emanate from relatively warm surface fissures known as “tiger stripes,” and the plumes' existence and composition, as well as the heat associated with the stripes, hint strongly of a subsurface ocean there. The water ionizes and interacts with Saturn's rapidly rotating magnetosphere, and escaping ice grains feed Saturn's E ring. The exact process causing the plumes' emission, and its longevity, are not yet understood. What is clear is that Enceladus is not only unexpectedly active geologically at present, it also joins other outer-planet moons, including Europa and Titan, in potentially harboring the ingredients for life.
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