Satellite Cassini flew through geyser plumes spouting from Enceladus and gathered ice crystals. These crystals are salt-rich, suggesting that a hidden salty sea lurks beneath Enceladus's icy cap.
Spectacular geysers of ice crystals that erupt from Saturn's moon Enceladus – and that formed Saturn's diaphanous E-ring – likely come from a subsurface sea reminiscent of Jules Verne's "Journey to the Center of the Earth."
Moreover, the geysers appear to be driven by a mysterious heat source unlike anything yet seen in the solar system.
Those are the implications of a new study of the geysers' plumes. The study will appear in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.
If the conclusions hold up to further scrutiny, they also imply that ice-encrusted Enceladus – far from the sun's "habitable zone" – could harbor a subsurface environment hospitable to simple forms of life.
Although the notion of a under-ice sea on Enceladus isn't new, until now the evidence in hand has allowed for an explanation for the ice plumes that doesn't require presence of liquid water, explains Sascha Kempf, a planetary scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a member of the team reporting the results.
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