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TOPIC: Enceladus


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RE: Enceladus
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Icy chasms on one of Saturn's most humble moons, hidden amid its glorious rings, have overtaken the sands of Mars and the stratosphere of Venus as the most intriguing potential hiding place for alien life in our solar system.
Enceladus, a shining ball of ice hugging Saturn's rings, was first caught in the act of spewing a watery geyser from its south pole two years ago by the international Cassini mission. Water, life's most crucial ingredient, was blasting 270 miles into space, actually hitting the orbiting spacecraft, from cracks on the frozen moon dubbed "tiger stripes."

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The image of Enceladus was taken with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on May 27, 2007 using a spectral filter sensitive to wavelengths of infrared light centred at 930 nanometers.
The image the sulci near the south pole belie that assumption.

encelads_2
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Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

The view looks toward the Saturn-facing hemisphere on Enceladus.
The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 615,000 kilometres from Enceladus and at a Sun-Enceladus-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 3 degrees.

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This image of Enceladus was taken by the Cassini spaceprobe on June 28, 2007, when it was approximately 278,599 kilometres away.

Sat030287
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Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

The image was taken using the CL1 and RED filters.

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This image of Enceladus was taken by the Cassini spaceprobe on June 28, 2007, when it was approximately 292,430 kilometres away.

enceladus85266
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Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

The image was taken using the CL1 and GRN filters.


This image of Enceladus was taken by the Cassini spaceprobe on June 29, 2007, when it was approximately 277,963 kilometres away.

enceladus85254
Expand (114kb, 1024 x 768)
Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

The image was taken using the CL1 and CL2 filters.

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The Cassini spacecraft imaged the crescent of Enceladus and a plume of ice particles erupting from the moon's south polar region .

encelad_2631_desk
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Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on April 24, 2007 at a distance of approximately 188,000 kilometres from Enceladus and at a Sun-Enceladus-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 153 degrees. Image scale is 1 kilometre per pixel.

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Cracks in the icy surface of Saturn's moon Enceladus open and close daily under the pull of Saturn's gravity, according to new calculations by NASA-sponsored researchers.

"Tides generated by Saturn's gravity could control the timing of eruptions from cracks in the southern hemisphere of Enceladus" - Dr. Terry Hurford of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre, Greenbelt.

Md. Hurford is lead author of a paper on this research appearing in Nature May 17. This paper is one of two studies on Enceladus in this issue of Nature. The other paper explains that tidal forces cause the sides of the cracks to rub together and produce enough heat to vaporize ice into plumes that jettison off the moon, researchers suggest.

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Enceladus may now be on the short list of bodies in the solar system that probably have the water, energy, and chemistry necessary to support Earthlike life. Two recent studies in the journal Icarus hint at "soup" and a "sea" underlying the geologically active south pole of Enceladus. In the first, "Enceladus' plume: Compositional evidence for a hot interior," Dennis Matson and his co-authors find that the likeliest explanation for the composition of the stuff spewing from Enceladus' vents includes catalytic chemistry taking place in warm fluids circulating in Enceladus' rocky interior. In the second, "Enceladus' south polar sea," Geoff Collins and Jason Goodman explain the observed shape of Enceladus by modelling a huge body of liquid water underlying the south pole. Taken together, the two papers suggest that the deep interior of Enceladus could harbour conditions favourable to life.

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A hot start billions of years ago might have set into motion the forces that power geysers on Saturn's moon Enceladus.

"Deep inside Enceladus, our model indicates we've got an organic brew, a heat source and liquid water, all key ingredients for life. And while no one is claiming that we have found life by any means, we probably have evidence for a place that might be hospitable to life"
- Dr. Dennis Matson, Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

Since NASA's Voyager spacecraft first returned images of the moon's snowy white surface, scientists have suspected Enceladus had to have something unusual happening within that shell. Cameras on NASA's Cassini orbiter seemed to confirm that suspicion in 2005 when they spotted geysers on Enceladus ejecting water vapour and ice crystals from its south polar region. The challenge for researchers has been to figure out how this small ice ball could produce the levels of heat needed to fuel such eruptions.
A new model suggests the rapid decay of radioactive elements within Enceladus shortly after it formed may have jump-started the long-term heating of the moon's interior that continues today. The model provides support for another recent, related finding, which indicates that Enceladus' icy plumes contain molecules that require elevated temperatures to form.

"Enceladus is a very small body, and it's made almost entirely of ice and rock. The puzzle is how the moon developed a warm core. The only way to achieve such high temperatures at Enceladus is through the very rapid decay of some radioactive species" - Dr. Julie Castillo, the lead scientist developing the new model at JPL.

The hot start model suggests Enceladus began as a mixed-up ball of ice and rock that contained rapidly decaying radioactive isotopes of aluminium and iron. The decomposition of those isotopes over a period of about 7 million years would produce enormous amounts of heat. This would result in the consolidation of rocky material at the core surrounded by a shell of ice. According to the theory, the remaining, more slowly decaying radioactivity in the core could continue to warm and melt the moon's interior for billions of years, along with tidal forces from Saturn's gravitational tug.
Scientists have also found the model helpful in explaining how Enceladus might have produced the chemicals in the plume, as measured by Cassini's ion and neutral mass spectrometer. Matson is lead author of a new study of the plume's composition, which appears in the April issue of the journal Icarus. Although the plume is predominantly made up of water vapour, the spectrometer also detected within the plume minor amounts of gaseous nitrogen, methane, carbon dioxide, propane and acetylene.
Scientists were particularly surprised by the nitrogen because they don't think it could have been part of Enceladus' original makeup. Instead, Matson's team suggests it is the product of the decomposition of ammonia deep within the moon, where the warm core and surrounding liquid water meet.
The thermal decomposition of ammonia would require temperatures as high as 577 degrees Celsius (1070 degrees Fahrenheit), depending on whether catalysts such as clay minerals are present. And while the long-term decay of radioactive species and current tidal forces alone cannot account for such high temperatures, with the help of the hot start model, they can.
The scalding conditions are also favourable for the formation of simple hydrocarbon chains, basic building blocks of life, which Cassini's spectrometer detected in small amounts within Enceladus' plume. The team concludes that so far, all the findings and the hot start model indicate that a warm, organic-rich mixture was produced below the surface of Enceladus and might still be present today, making the moon a promising kitchen for the cooking of primordial soup.
To gather more information about the chemistry within Enceladus, the team plans to directly measure the gas emanating from the plume during a flyby scheduled for March 2008.

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-- Edited by Blobrana at 21:19, 2007-03-22

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The Cassini spacecraft looks down under at the tortured south polar region of Enceladus, crossed by its "tiger stripes," or sulci, as the long, nearly parallel fractures are officially known. The use of enhanced colour in this and other composite images makes the fractures and faults easier for the eye to detect.

encel08881
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Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

The moon's excess warmth, water ice jets, and huge vapour plume laced with simple organic materials make it an excellent candidate for the search for pre-biotic chemistry, and possibly even life, beyond Earth. Enceladus is 505 kilometres.
This false-colour view is a composite of images obtained using filters sensitive to ultraviolet, green and infrared light. The images were taken by the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Jan. 16, 2007 at a distance of approximately 657,000 kilometres from Enceladus. Image scale is 4 kilometres per pixel.

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Particles spewed from Saturn's moon Enceladus are sandblasting neighbouring moons, leaving them sparklingly bright, a new study reveals. If life exists beneath the surface of Enceladus, these particles might be spreading it to other moons.

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