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Cassini Magnetometer Finds an Atmosphere on Saturn's Moon Enceladus

Research by Dr. Michele Dougherty, P.I., Imperial College, London-- NASA, Cassini-Huygens Mission to Saturn and Titan

Diagram of hot plasma flow from Saturn to Enceladus.
Diagram of hot plasma flow from Saturn to Enceladus.

The Cassini spacecraft's two close flybys of Saturn's icy moon Enceladus have revealed that the moon has a significant atmosphere.

Scientists, using Cassini's magnetometer instrument for their studies, say the source may be volcanism, geysers, or gases escaping from the surface or the interior.

Chart showing plasma flow and Saturn's direction.
Chart showing plasma flow and Saturn's direction.

Dr. Michele Dougherty, Principal Investigator for the Cassini magnetometer and professor at Imperial College in London, has been conducting research with Cassini's magnetometer instrument.

The observations showed a bending of the magnetic field, with the magnetospheric plasma being slowed and deflected by the moon. In addition, magnetic field oscillations were observed. These are caused when electrically charged (or ionized) molecules interact with the magnetic field by spiraling around the field line. This interaction creates characteristic oscillations in the magnetic field at frequencies that can be used to identify the molecule. The observations from the Enceladus flybys are believed to be due to ionized water vapor.

When Cassini had its first encounter with Enceladus on Feb. 17 at an altitude of 1,167 kilometers (725 miles), the magnetometer instrument saw a striking signature in the magnetic field. On March 9, Cassini approached to within 500 kilometers (310 miles) of Enceladus' surface and obtained additional evidence.

During its very close flyby on March 9, 2005, the Cassini spacecraft captured this false-color view of Saturn's moon Enceladus.
During its very close flyby on March 9, 2005, the Cassini spacecraft captured this false-color view of Saturn's moon Enceladus.

Significance to Solar System Exploration

This is the first time since Cassini arrived in orbit around Saturn last summer that an atmosphere has been detected around a moon of Saturn, other than its largest moon, Titan. Enceladus is a relatively small moon. The gravitational force it exerts is not enough to hold an atmosphere very long. Therefore, at Enceladus, a strong continuous source is required to maintain the atmosphere. The need for such a strong source leads scientists to consider eruptions, such as volcanoes and geysers. If such eruptions are present, Enceladus would be only the third moon in the solar system, along with Io at Jupiter and Triton at Neptune, where volcanic activity has been identified.

Enceladus up-close
Enceladus up-close.

Implications

Since the Voyager flyby, scientists have suspected that this moon is geologically active and is the source of Saturn's icy E ring. Enceladus is the most reflective object in the solar system, reflecting about 90 percent of the sunlight that hits it. If Enceladus does have ice volcanoes, the high reflectivity of the moon's surface might result from continuous deposition of icy particles originating from the volcanoes.

For further information about science highlights and having your research highlighted, please contact Samantha Harvey at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Samantha.K.Harvey@jpl.nasa.gov.

Last Updated: 23 February 2011

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Last Updated: 23 Feb 2011