Royal Astronomical Society Press Release
RAS PN 10/33 (NAM 18) 14-Apr-2010
Observations of how Saturn’s moon Enceladus interacts with its environment show it leaves a complex pattern of ripples and bubbles in its wake.
Enceladus sits deep within Saturn’s magnetosphere, which is filled with electrically charged particles (plasma) originating from both the planet and its moons. The Cassini spacecraft has made nine flybys of the mysterious sixth-largest moon since 2005. The closest of these have taken the spacecraft’s suite of instruments just 25 km from Enceladus’s surface, which scientists believe conceals a saline ocean. Heated vents at the south pole of the moon release a plume of material, consisting mainly of icy grains and water vapour, into space. Measurements from the Cassini Plasma Spectrometer (CAPS) and the Magnetospheric IMaging Instrument (MIMI) show that both the moon and its plume are continuously soaking up the plasma, which rushes past at around 30 kilometres per second, leaving a cavity downstream. In addition, the most energetic particles which zoom up and down Saturn’s magnetic field lines are swept up, leaving a much larger void in the high energy plasma. Material from Enceladus, both dust and gas, is also being charged and forming new plasma.
“Enceladus is the source of most of the plasma in Saturn’s magnetosphere, with ionised water and oxygen originating from the vents forming a big torus of plasma that surrounds Saturn. We may see these spiky features in the wake of Saturn’s other moons as they interact with the plasma but, to date, we have only studied Enceladus in sufficient detail,” said Ms Kanani.