We finally know why Saturn moon shoots silica into space

Scientists may have discovered the cause of the ice silica that Saturn's frigid moon Enceladus spews into space.

For a long time, scientists were aware that Enceladus ejected icy silica that ultimately found its way into Saturn's E ring, but they lacked a solid theory as to why this was occurring.

The solution may now be found in a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles. According to their study, the silica is forced to the surface by currents produced by tidal heating in the rocky center of Encealadus. Once there, deep-sea hydrothermal explosions are probably responsible for releasing it into orbit.

Figuring out the enigmas of a frigid Saturn moon

One of the 83 known moons of Saturn, Enceladus, is an ocean planet with a significant amount of liquid water buried beneath its ice surface. The new discoveries are founded on information gathered by NASA's Cassini spacecraft, which orbited Saturn from 2004 to 2017. Cassini acquired data on the processes occurring beneath that icy surface.

Deep below Enceladus' surface, on the sea bottom, is where the ice silica first forms. Saturn's tidal forces cause currents to flow through the ocean's water, which begins a loop that results in the release of ice silica into space.

According to a news release from Ashley Schoenfeld, a doctoral student at UCLA, "our study demonstrates that these flows are powerful enough to gather up materials from the seabed and transport them to the ice shell that divides the ocean from the emptiness of space." "For the purpose of launching trapped materials into space, the tiger-stripe cracks that pierce through the ice shell and into this subsurface ocean can serve as direct channels. Enceladus is offering us complimentary samples of what lies below the surface."

Enceladus' internal workings are revealed by simulations.

The UCLA crew, headed by Schoenfeld, created a model to mimic the procedure taking place on the Saturnian moon in order to arrive at their conclusions. Second author Emily Hawkins, a UCLA graduate who is currently an associate professor of physics at Loyola Marymount University, said, "Our model further supports the notion that convective turbulence in the ocean effectively moves critical nutrients from the seabed to ice shell."

The new research adds new insight into the function of Enceladus' hydrothermal eruptions by showing that their effects can be felt all the way to Saturn's rings. The simulation demonstrates that silica likely drifts in the direction of Saturn's E ring, indicating that it contributed to the formation of the striking feature. The new research is yet another indication that icy moons may be the key to discovering alien life in our solar system, just as hydrothermal vents played a significant part in the emergence of life on Earth.