Saturnian moon emits long tendrils

The tendrils originate from geysers on the surface of Enceladus.
By Andrew McDonald | Apr 16, 2015
According to a NASA statement, images from the Cassini probe orbiting Saturn have revealed a strange and beautiful phenomenon in the vicinity of Enceladus, one of the gas giant's moons. The images show several wispy tendrils of material emanating from Enceladus. The ghostly emissions are visible only under certain lighting conditions in wide-view images.

The research team, led by Cassini imaging team associate Colin Mitchell of the Space Science Institute in Boulder, suspected that the tendrils were related to geysers discovered on Enceladus in 2005. These geysers also were identified by Cassini and consist of particles of water ice, water vapor, and simple organic compounds.

The tendrils reach from the vicinity of Enceladus into Saturn's E ring, in which Enceladus resides. The tendrils stretch tens of thousands of miles into the ring, and appear to be the mechanisms by which the E ring is replenished with material from Enceladus. Mitchell and colleagues built a computer model to trace the paths of ice particles emitted by individual geysers on Enceladus' surface.

This methods allowed the team to track the tendrils back to the geysers from which they originated. The team also determined that different sizes of particles relate to the different shapes observed in the tendrils. The particles that comprise the tendrils are no smaller than approximately a hundred thousandth of an inch across. The tendrils also changes shape over time, probably due to tidal stress incurred as Enceladus orbits Saturn and the resultant fluctuations in the diameters of the fractures in the moon's icy shell that emit the geysers.

"As the supply lanes for Saturn's E ring, the tendrils give us a way to ascertain how much mass is leaving Enceladus and making its way into Saturn orbit," said imaging team leader and study coauthor Carolyn Porco. "So, another important step is to determine how much mass is involved, and thus estimate how much longer the moon's sub-surface ocean may last."

The new findings were published online on April 14 in the Astronomical Journal.

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