relatively tiny white moon floating before a colorful cloudscape on saturn

Saturn's icy moon Dione floats in front of the giant planet in this view from NASA's Cassini spacecraft on Sept. 22, 2005. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute | Full image and caption

10 Things: Unsolved Mysteries of Saturn's Moons

By Lonnie Shekhtman
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Feature | May 28, 2019

There’s way more to Saturn than its majestic rings. The planet also boasts a collection of 62 exotic moons. Titan — a giant, icy world bigger than our Moon — is known for its dense, hazy atmosphere and methane seas. There’s also Enceladus, a bright, white ice ball with a liquid-water ocean wrapped inside its frozen shell, that continuously erupts as a towering water plume through cracks near its south pole. Saturn’s moon Pan, nestled in the planet’s rings, is known for looking like a ravioli, and Janus looks something like a meatball. Cassini scientists even spotted an object orbiting inside the rings, nicknamed Peggy, that might have been a moon in the act of forming or disintegrating.

While we've learned some amazing things about these moons, there are many open questions about Saturn’s coterie of satellites and what they can teach us about the evolution of the solar system. Here are only 10 of the many mysteries scientists are working to solve:

diagram showing saturn's rings and relative distance of its moons
An artist's concept of Saturn's rings and major icy moons. Credit: NASA/JPL | Full image and caption

1. How old are Saturn’s moons?

Many of the planets' satellites, or moons, formed at the same time as the rest of our solar system, more than 4 billion years ago. Saturn's larger moons, in particular, display a record of that long history in the extensive craters that cover their surfaces. But recent modeling suggests some of Saturn’s moons may be younger, possibly only 100 million years old or less.

One way scientists can tell the ages of Saturn's is by looking at how closely the moons orbit the planet. A gravitational tug-of-war between planets and their satellites pushes the orbits of satellites outward into space slowly over very long periods of time. (For example, our moon is drifting away from Earth each year at about the rate that fingernails grow.) The recent study suggests that, if Saturn’s moons were as old as the solar system, ones that are close to the rings would’ve drifted much farther away by now. This conclusion conflicts with the apparent age of the moons from their heavily cratered surfaces, but it adds new ideas to the ongoing quest to puzzle out the history of the Saturn system.

crescent moon with large crater
The Cassini spacecraft turns the eye of its camera toward Saturn's moon Mimas and spies the large Herschel Crater which itself looks like the iris of an eye peering out into space. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute | › Full image and caption

2. Did Saturn's moons all form at the same time?

We don’t think so. In fact, there are moonlets still forming today at the outer edge of Saturn’s rings. Some of Saturn’s moons, including its smallest and innermost major satellite, Mimas, might have formed from the same material that made its iconic rings — which also may be much younger than previously thought. This material could include pieces of comets and asteroids that broke up around Saturn. Or maybe early moons shattered into pieces after colliding or straying too close to Saturn, where they were ripped apart by the tugging of the giant planet’s gravity. Another theory is that the planets rearranged a billion years or so after the solar system formed and stirred up the small bodies around them, sending them flinging and colliding all over the place — potentially, a great recipe for new moons.

It also appears that some moons were adopted by Saturn. The pockmarked Phoebe likely came from afar and was captured by Saturn’s gravity at some point. We think so because Phoebe is made out of material found in the far reaches of the solar system, way beyond Saturn. It also orbits much farther from Saturn than most other moons, and it circles the planet in the opposite direction — in what is called a retrograde orbit — compared to most other satellites. Saturn also has quite a few small, outer moons in retrograde orbits that are tilted with respect to the planet's equator, sure signs that these are likely captured objects that didn't form with the other moons.

orange sphere with rings and saturn in background
The colorful globe of Saturn's largest moon, Titan, passes in front of the planet and its rings in this true color snapshot from NASA's Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute | › Full image and caption

3. Why does Saturn have fewer large moons than Jupiter?

Jupiter, a gas giant even bigger than Saturn, has four large moons (out of 79 known as of 2019). These are the “Galilean moons,” a group named after the astronomer Galileo, who first discovered them in the early 1600s. These are Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Saturn has only one moon in this size category: Titan. We don’t know why Jupiter’s large moons stayed intact while most of Saturn’s appear to have been shredded by Saturn’s gravity and collisions. One possibility is that, because Jupiter’s large satellites orbit farther away from the planet, they are potentially less susceptible to being ripped apart by its gravity.

rings with small moon outside
Having recently rounded the ansa, or outer edge of the rings, Mimas heads off toward right. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute | › Full image and caption

4. Why do some moons have liquid water oceans while others are dry?

This is where the ages of the moons may come into play. Thanks to NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which studied Saturn and its moons for a decade from up close, we know that Enceladus, Titan and possibly Dione have liquid water oceans. But why not Mimas? It is much closer to Saturn than Enceladus, and thus more susceptible to the tidal tug-of-war between those two bodies that could generate enough heat to maintain a liquid ocean inside Mimas. However, if Mimas were to turn out to be relatively young, that could explain why it’s dry, speculates planetary scientist Marc Neveu in an April 1 paper in Nature Astronomy.

According to his research, Mimas could be less than 1 billion years old, forming from loose material in Saturn’s rings. In this hypothetical scenario, by the time the debris coalesced into Mimas, it would already have had billions of years to lose its radioactive heat (heat produced by the nuclear decay of certain chemical elements in rocks over eons). Without radioactive heat inside, the cold and rigid sphere of Mimas would never have been squished and warmed enough by Saturn’s pull to have melted its ice into a liquid-water ocean. Still, there is some evidence that an ocean on Mimas is possible. Cassini found that the little moon wobbles as it rotates on its axis, an enigma that could be explained by either an irregularly shaped solid core or from an ocean sloshing beneath its icy surface.

curved horizon with venting geysers visible
This dramatic view looks across the region of Enceladus' geyser basin and down on the ends of the Baghdad and Damascus fractures that face Saturn. The geysers' source is the underground liquid ocean of Enceladus. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute | › Full image and caption

5. Are the moon oceans similar to Earth's?

The ocean on Enceladus is salty like Earth’s ocean. The salinity suggests that the water might be interacting chemically with a rocky core — increasing the likelihood the ocean could be habitable for simple life. This type of interaction on our planet provides energy and nutrients to critters that thrive on the dark seafloor, miles below the ocean surface. Could the same thing be happening on Enceladus? Titan also has a liquid-water ocean, but scientists don’t know yet if it’s interacting with rock on the ocean bottom or with ice.

two crescent moons, one appearing much smaller behind the other
Saturn’s moon Tethys disappears behind Titan as observed by Cassini on Nov. 26, 2009. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute | › Full image and caption

6. How old are the oceans?

Most likely they've been around for billions of years, as it is very difficult for a subsurface ocean to form well after the moon forms. Scientists have yet to zero in on a solid explanation for what originally formed Enceladus’s ocean, although a giant impact has been examined as a possibility. Titan’s ocean, on the other hand, could have formed around the same time as the moon, more than 4 billion years ago. It could’ve been melted by radioactive decay heat in Titan's deep interior, by heat from impacts or some combination of these. The heat generated by gravitational tugging is not a major factor on Titan since its orbit is so far from Saturn.

moon against dark background of space with brightly illuminated jets of material
Enceladus' intriguing south-polar jets are viewed from afar, backlit by sunlight while the moon itself glows softly in reflected Saturn-shine. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute | › Full image and caption

7. Is there life in the oceans?

We don’t know yet if the oceans inside Saturn's moons have the necessary ingredients to support life, but there are intriguing signs they might. Enceladus is among NASA’s top targets in the search for life beyond Earth because it appears to have three of life’s most important ingredients: the right chemical ingredients (such as carbon or hydrogen), available energy and liquid water.

Near the end of its mission, in 2015, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft flew through the plume of water erupting from Enceladus and detected molecular hydrogen. This helped strengthen the case for habitability on Enceladus, because hydrogen is an important food source to critters that thrive near hydrothermal vents on Earth.

Titan, which is half the size of Earth, is intriguing not only for its internal ocean, but also for its dense, nitrogen-rich atmosphere and complex carbon chemistry. Whether it's inhabited or not, Titan is a fantastic natural laboratory for the chemistry of life.

moonlet making waves in ring material
Daphnis, one of Saturn's ring-embedded moons, is featured in this view, kicking up waves among the ring particles as it orbits within the Keeler gap. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute | › Full image and caption

8. Will the moons stick with Saturn forever?

It’s likely Saturn's major moons will orbit the planet forever, but some of the smaller, more fragile ring moons could vanish. Newer moonlets, created from loose material in the rings, are at higher risk for destructive collisions and disruption by gravitational tides.

curve of saturn with several moons visible nearby
On March 13, 2006 Cassini’s narrow-angle camera captured this look at Saturn and its rings, seen here nearly edge on. The frame also features Mimas and tiny Janus (above the rings), and Tethys (below the rings). Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute | › Full image and caption

9. Why are the inner moons drifting away from Saturn so quickly?

Over time, moons tend to slowly drift away from their parent planets: it’s nature. At Saturn, the gravity from its many moons tugs on the planet’s insides, drawing them a little closer to the moons. (Similar to how our moon’s gravity tugs on Earth’s oceans, creating tides.) But Saturn’s gravity also tugs on the moons. This creates a tug-of-war that forces the moons into increasingly wider orbits, pushing them farther from Saturn — like kids on a fast-spinning merry-go-round being tugged toward its edge.

One analysis by a group of researchers outside NASA suggested some of Saturn's inner moons might be moving outward faster than expected, given how close to the planet they are. The scientists compared a decade of Cassini measurements of the orbits of Saturn’s moons to their orbits in 100-year-old telescope images preserved on photographic plates. Their analysis suggested a young age for the moons — otherwise they would’ve drifted much farther from Saturn in the 4.6 billion years since Saturn formed. While the idea is intriguing, Cassini researchers point out that it's unlikely 100 years of observations would be long enough to discern changes in the orbits of these mons.

So are they drifting away? In a sense, yes, just like Earth's Moon is. However, the amount of time involved is likely greater than the predicted lifespan of the Solar System (i.e., many billions of years).

broad arc of rings with saturn visible behind
Saturn’s rings are perhaps the most recognized feature of any world in our solar system. They are made mostly of particles of water ice that range in size from smaller than a grain of sand to as large as mountains.Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute | › Full image and caption

10. Enough about the moons: what’s the deal with Saturn’s rings?

In essence, they’re disappearing, and so are the moonlets living among them. Researchers think they could be gone in possibly only 100 million years. The rings are being pulled into Saturn by gravity as a gradual, steady rain of dust-size ice particles.