Enceladus

The second nearest of the major regular moons of Saturn and the brightest of all its moons is Enceladus. It was discovered in 1789 by the English astronomer William Herschel and named for one of the Giants (Gigantes) of Greek mythology.

Enceladus measures about 500 km (310 miles) in diameter and orbits Saturn in a prograde, nearly circular path at a mean distance of 238,020 km (147,899 miles). Its average density is only 30 percent greater than that of water, which indicates that it is at least half water ice.

View of Enceladus from Voyager 2, showing crater-free portions of the surface, possibly indicative of resurfacing by liquid water from the interior. B.A. Smith/National Space Science Data Center

The surface of Enceladus reflects more light than newly fallen snow. Voyager images showed few large craters; the presence of smooth, crater-free areas and extensive ridged plains gave convincing evidence that fairly recent internal activity, possibly within the last 100 million years, has caused widespread melting and resurfacing. Spectral data from Cassini show that Enceladus's surface is almost pure water ice.

Enceladus Smooth Plains

Saturn's moon Enceladus;photograph taken by the Cassini spacecraft, 2008. NASA

Little was known about Enceladus until the flyby of the U.S. spacecraft Voyager 2 in 1981. Approaching as close as 87,140 km (54,146 miles), the spacecraft returned images revealing that Enceladus is complex geologically, its surface having undergone five distinct evolutionary periods. Additional observations by the Cassini spacecraft, which began a series of close flybys of Enceladus (some less than 200 km [125 miles] away) in 2005, confirmed that portions of the moon are geologically active today, with extremely high heat flow (far hotter than predicted from solar heating alone) and associated eruptions of water vapour and ice from geysers (a form of ice volcanism, or cryovolcanism) especially apparent in its south polar region. The moon's south polar hot spot is at a temperature of 140 K (-208 °F, -133 °C); the region also exhibits enigmatic geologic structures dubbed "tiger stripes." Several craterless areas may be only 100 million years old, suggesting that parts of the surface melted and refroze in the recent geologic past and that Enceladus may have multiple active areas. Enceladus's current activity is responsible for Saturn's E ring, a tenuous ring of micrometre-sized particles of water ice condensed from vapour ejected by the geysers. The particles are densest near Enceladus's orbit and are analogous to the cloud of orbiting particles ejected from Jupiter's volcanically active moon Io. The orbital lifetimes of the E ring particles are very short, perhaps only 10,000 years, but they are resup-plied continually by cryovolcanic eruptions. The water-ice particles that form the E ring are being expelled from Enceladus at the rate of about 1,000 metric tons per year. As is the case with Europa, the existence of possible liquid water on Enceladus makes it a promising environment for life.

Enceladus's 33-hour trip around Saturn is one-half that of the more distant moon Dione; the two bodies are thus associated in an orbital resonance. Under certain circumstances, such a resonance can lead to large amounts of tidal heating of the inner of the involved moons, but it remains to be shown in detailed calculations how this mechanism could generate enough heating to account for continuing activity within Enceladus.

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