One of Saturn’s many moons, Enceladus is a diminutive celestial body, measuring only 310 miles in diameter. Discovered on Aug. 28, 1789 by the British astronomer William Herschel, Enceladus didn’t come into full view until Sept. 1, 1979, when NASA’s Pioneer 11 performed a distant flyby.
Since that time, humanity’s learned many things about the moon. We know that it’s active, and that it gushes out water vapor at 800 mph to a distance three times the moon’s radius. Further, scientists believe the moon hides an ocean of liquid water beneath its surface, and that the ocean may be a site of hypothermal activity.
Researchers from Princeton University and University of Chicago, in a new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, believe the hidden ocean may be responsible for the formation of fissures that line the moon’s surface, colloquially known as “tiger stripes.”
“We found that a simple model in which the erupting fissures are underlain by slots that connect the surface to the ocean can explain the observations,” the researchers wrote.
According to Princeton University, it’s from these “tiger stripes” that Enceladus’ gaseous plumes erupt. The four “tiger stripes” are located near the moon’s southern pole, and are an average 81 miles long, separated from each other by about 22 miles.
The fissures were first spotted by the Cassini spacecraft in 2005.
Unlike Earth’s eruptions, Enceladus’ eruptions from the fissures are continuous, showing no signs of clogging up.
“In the model, the slots are mostly filled with water, and (Saturn’s tidal forces) drive turbulent water flow in the slots whose dissipation produces enough heat to keep the slots open,” they wrote. “In turn, long-lived water-filled slots drive a volcano-tectonic feedback that buffers the rate of volcanism to approximately the observed value.”
The ocean-surface connection, which penetrates through ice roughly 19 miles thick, could be sustained on million-year timescales, according to the researchers.
The research could help inform future satellite missions to the moon, as Cassini performed its final flyby of Enceladus on Dec. 19.
The researchers believe that much like Europa, which has a subsurface ocean, Enceladus could potentially host some form of life.
“Direct passages to the subsurface oceans of these satellites are possible windows into environments that host life,” said study coauthor Allan Rubin in a statement.
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