Spacecraft Data Suggest Saturn Moon’s Ocean May Harbor Hydrothermal Activity
› Cassini finds first evidence of active hot-water chemistry beyond planet Earth
› Findings in two separate papers support the notion
› The results have important implications for the habitability of icy worlds
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has provided scientists the first clear evidence that Saturn’s moon Enceladus exhibits signs of present-day hydrothermal activity which may resemble that seen in the deep oceans on Earth. The implications of such activity on a world other than our planet open up unprecedented scientific possibilities.
“These findings add to the possibility that Enceladus, which contains a subsurface ocean and displays remarkable geologic activity, could contain environments suitable for living organisms,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “The locations in our solar system where extreme environments occur in which life might exist may bring us closer to answering the question: are we alone in the universe.”
Hydrothermal activity occurs when seawater infiltrates and reacts with a rocky crust and emerges as a heated, mineral-laden solution, a natural occurrence in Earth’s oceans. According to two science papers, the results are the first clear indications an icy moon may have similar ongoing active processes.
The first paper, published this week in the journal Nature, relates to microscopic grains of rock detected by Cassini in the Saturn system. An extensive, four-year analysis of data from the spacecraft, computer simulations and laboratory experiments led researchers to the conclusion the tiny grains most likely form when hot water containing dissolved minerals from the moon’s rocky interior travels upward, coming into contact with cooler water. Temperatures required for the interactions that produce the tiny rock grains would be at least 194 degrees Fahrenheit (90 degrees Celsius).
“It’s very exciting that we can use these tiny grains of rock, spewed into space by geysers, to tell us about conditions on — and beneath — the ocean floor of an icy moon,” said the paper’s lead author Sean Hsu, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Cassini’s cosmic dust analyzer (CDA) instrument repeatedly detected miniscule rock particles rich in silicon, even before Cassini entered Saturn’s orbit in 2004. By process of elimination, the CDA team concluded these particles must be grains of silica, which is found in sand and the mineral quartz on Earth. The consistent size of the grains observed by Cassini, the largest of which were 6 to 9 nanometers, was the clue that told the researchers a specific process likely was responsible.
On Earth, the most common way to form silica grains of this size is hydrothermal activity under a specific range of conditions; namely, when slightly alkaline and salty water that is super-saturated with silica undergoes a big drop in temperature.
“We methodically searched for alternate explanations for the nanosilica grains, but every new result pointed to a single, most likely origin,” said co-author Frank Postberg, a Cassini CDA team scientist at Heidelberg University in Germany.
Hsu and Postberg worked closely with colleagues at the University of Tokyo who performed the detailed laboratory experiments that validated the hydrothermal activity hypothesis. The Japanese team, led by Yasuhito Sekine, verified the conditions under which silica grains form at the same size Cassini detected. The researchers think these conditions may exist on the seafloor of Enceladus, where hot water from the interior meets the relatively cold water at the ocean bottom.
The extremely small size of the silica particles also suggests they travel upward relatively quickly from their hydrothermal origin to the near-surface sources of the moon’s geysers. From seafloor to outer space, a distance of about 30 miles (50 kilometers), the grains spend a few months to a few years in transit, otherwise they would grow much larger.
The authors point out that Cassini’s gravity measurements suggest Enceladus’ rocky core is quite porous, which would allow water from the ocean to percolate into the interior. This would provide a huge surface area where rock and water could interact.
The second paper, recently published in Geophysical Research Letters, suggests hydrothermal activity as one of two likely sources of methane in the plume of gas and ice particles that erupts from the south polar region of Enceladus. The finding is the result of extensive modeling to address why methane, as previously sampled by Cassini, is curiously abundant in the plume.
The team found that, at the high pressures expected in the moon’s ocean, icy materials called clathrates could form that imprison methane molecules within a crystal structure of water ice. Their models indicate that this process is so efficient at depleting the ocean of methane that the researchers still needed an explanation for its abundance in the plume.
In one scenario, hydrothermal processes super-saturate the ocean with methane. This could occur if methane is produced faster than it is converted into clathrates. A second possibility is that methane clathrates from the ocean are dragged along into the erupting plumes and release their methane as they rise, like bubbles forming in a popped bottle of champagne.
The authors agree both scenarios are likely occurring to some degree, but they note that the presence of nanosilica grains, as documented by the other paper, favors the hydrothermal scenario.
“We didn’t expect that our study of clathrates in the Enceladus ocean would lead us to the idea that methane is actively being produced by hydrothermal processes,” said lead author Alexis Bouquet, a graduate student at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Bouquet worked with co-author Hunter Waite, who leads the Cassini Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS) team at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.
Cassini first revealed active geological processes on Enceladus in 2005 with evidence of an icy spray issuing from the moon’s south polar region and higher-than-expected temperatures in the icy surface there. With its powerful suite of complementary science instruments, the mission soon revealed a towering plume of water ice and vapor, salts and organic materials that issues from relatively warm fractures on the wrinkled surface. Gravity science results published in 2014 strongly suggested the presence of a 6-mile- (10-kilometer-) deep ocean beneath an ice shell about 19 to 25 miles (30 to 40 kilometers) thick.
The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, manages the mission for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Cassini CDA instrument was provided by the German Aerospace Center. The instrument team, led by Ralf Srama, is based at the University of Stuttgart in Germany. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
More information about Cassini, visit:
NASA Holds Teleconference on Hubble Observations of Jupiter’s Largest Moon
(March 9, 2015)
|This image of Ganymede, one of Jupiter’s moons and the largest moon in our solar system was taken by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA|
NASA will host a teleconference at 11 a.m. EDT on Thursday, March 12, to discuss Hubble Space Telescope’s observations of Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon. These results will help scientists in the search for habitable worlds beyond Earth.
Participants in the teleconference will be:
- Jim Green, director of Planetary Science, NASA Headquarters, Washington
- Joachim Saur, professor for geophysics, University of Cologne, Germany
- Jennifer Wiseman, Hubble senior project scientist, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland
- Heidi Hammel, executive vice president, Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Washington
To participate by phone, reporters must contact Felicia Chou at felicia.chou and provide their media affiliation no later than noon Wednesday.
Audio of the teleconference will be streamed live on NASA’s website at:
For information about NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, visit:
For information about our solar system, including Jupiter and Ganymede, visit:
NASA Spacecraft Becomes First to Orbit a Dwarf Planet
Latest News From NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Planet ‘Reared’ by Four Parent Stars
— Astronomers have discovered the second known case of a planet residing in a quadruple star system.
— The planet was known before, but was thought to have only three stars, not four.
— The findings help researchers understand how multiple star systems can influence the development and fate of planets.
Growing up as a planet with more than one parent star has its challenges. Though the planets in our solar system circle just one star — our sun — other more distant planets, called exoplanets, can be reared in families with two or more stars. Researchers wanting to know more about the complex influences of multiple stars on planets have come up with two new case studies: a planet found to have three parents, and another with four.
The discoveries were made using instruments fitted to telescopes at the Palomar Observatory in San Diego: the Robo-AO adaptive optics system, developed by the Inter-University Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics in India and the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and the PALM-3000 adaptive optics system, developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and Caltech.
This is only the second time a planet has been identified in a quadruple star system. While the planet was known before, it was thought to have only three stars, not four. The first four-star planet, KIC 4862625, was discovered in 2013 by citizen scientists using public data from NASA’s Kepler mission.
The latest discovery suggests that planets in quadruple star systems might be less rare than once thought. In fact, recent research has shown that this type of star system, which usually consists of two pairs of twin stars slowly circling each other at great distances, is itself more common than previously believed.
“About four percent of solar-type stars are in quadruple systems, which is up from previous estimates because observational techniques are steadily improving,” said co-author Andrei Tokovinin of the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile.
The newfound four-star planetary system, called 30 Ari, is located 136 light-years away in the constellation Aries. The system’s gaseous planet is enormous, with 10 times the mass of Jupiter, and it orbits its primary star every 335 days. The primary star has a relatively close partner star, which the planet does not orbit. This pair, in turn, is locked in a long-distance orbit with another pair of stars about 1,670 astronomical units away (an astronomical unit is the distance between Earth and the sun). Astronomers think it’s highly unlikely that this planet, or any moons that might circle it, could sustain life.
Were it possible to see the skies from this world, the four parent stars would look like one small sun and two very bright stars that would be visible in daylight. One of those stars, if viewed with a large enough telescope, would be revealed to be a binary system, or two stars orbiting each other.
In recent years, dozens of planets with two or three parent stars have been found, including those with “Tatooine” sunsets reminiscent of the Star Wars movies. Finding planets with multiple parents isn’t too much of a surprise, considering that binary stars are more common in our galaxy than single stars.
“Star systems come in myriad forms. There can be single stars, binary stars, triple stars, even quintuple star systems,” said Lewis Roberts of JPL, lead author of the new findings appearing in the journal Astronomical Journal. “It’s amazing the way nature puts these things together.”
Roberts and his colleagues want to understand the effects that multiple parent stars can have on their developing youthful planets. Evidence suggests that stellar companions can influence the fate of planets by changing the planets’ orbits and even triggering some to grow more massive. For example, the “hot Jupiters” — planets around the mass of Jupiter that whip closely around their stars in just days — might be gently nudged closer to their primary parent star by the gravitational hand of a stellar companion.
In the new study, the researchers describe using the automated Robo-AO system on Palomar Observatory to scan the night skies, searching hundreds of stars each night for signs of stellar companions. They found two candidates hosting exoplanets: the four-star system 30 Ari, and a triple-star planetary system called HD 2638. The findings were confirmed using the higher-resolution PALM-3000 instrument, also at Palomar Observatory.
The new planet with a trio of stars is a hot Jupiter that circles its primary star tightly, completing one lap every three days. Scientists already knew this primary star was locked in a gravitational tango with another star, about 0.7 light-years away, or 44,000 astronomical units. That’s relatively far apart for a pair of stellar companions. The latest discovery is of a third star in the system, which orbits the primary star from a distance of 28 astronomical units — close enough to have influenced the hot Jupiter’s development and final orbit.
“This result strengthens the connection between multiple star systems and massive planets,” said Roberts.
In the case of Ari 30, the discovery brought the number of known stars in the system from three to four. The fourth star lies at a distance of 23 astronomical units from the planet. While this stellar companion and its planet are closer to each other than those in the HD 2638 system, the newfound star does not appear to have impacted the orbit of the planet. The exact reason for this is uncertain, so the team is planning further observations to better understand the orbit of the star and its complicated family dynamics.
JPL is managed for NASA by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
PRESS RELEASE (NASA/JPL) – NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft recently began its long-awaited, historic encounter with Pluto. The spacecraft is entering the first of several approach phases that culminate July 14 with the first close-up flyby of the dwarf planet, 4.67 billion miles (7.5 billion kilometers) from Earth.
“NASA first mission to distant Pluto will also be humankind’s first close up view of this cold, unexplored world in our solar system,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “The New Horizons team worked very hard to prepare for this first phase, and they did it flawlessly.”
NASA’s New Horizons is the first mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt of icy, rocky mini-worlds on the solar system’s outer frontier. This animation follows the New Horizons spacecraft as it leaves Earth after its January 2006 launch, through a gravity-assist flyby of Jupiter in February 2007, to the encounter with Pluto and its moons in summer 2015. (Image Credit: NASA/JHUAPL)
The fastest spacecraft when it was launched, New Horizons lifted off in January 2006. It awoke from its final hibernation period last month after a voyage of more than 3 billion miles, and will soon pass close to Pluto, inside the orbits of its five known moons. In preparation for the close encounter, the mission’s science, engineering and spacecraft operations teams configured the piano-sized probe for distant observations of the Pluto system that start Sunday, Jan. 25 with a long-range photo shoot.
The images captured by New Horizons’ telescopic Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) will give mission scientists a continually improving look at the dynamics of Pluto’s moons. The images also will play a critical role in navigating the spacecraft as it covers the remaining 135 million miles (220 million kilometers) to Pluto.
“We’ve completed the longest journey any spacecraft has flown from Earth to reach its primary target, and we are ready to begin exploring,” said Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.
LORRI will take hundreds of pictures of Pluto over the next few
months to refine current estimates of the distance between the spacecraft and the dwarf planet. Though the Pluto system will resemble little more than bright dots in the camera’s view until May, mission navigators will use the data to design course-correction maneuvers to aim the spacecraft toward its target point this summer. The first such maneuver could occur as early as March.
“We need to refine our knowledge of where Pluto will be when New Horizons flies past it,” said Mark Holdridge, New Horizons encounter mission manager at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. “The flyby timing also has to be exact, because the computer commands that will orient the spacecraft and point the science instruments are based on precisely knowing the time we pass Pluto – which these images will help us determine.”
The “optical navigation” campaign that begins this month marks the first time pictures from New Horizons will be used to help pinpoint Pluto’s location.
Throughout the first approach phase, which runs until spring, New Horizons will conduct a significant amount of additional science. Spacecraft instruments will gather continuous data on the interplanetary environment where the planetary system orbits, including measurements of the high-energy particles streaming from the sun and dust-particle concentrations in the inner reaches of the Kuiper Belt. In addition to Pluto, this area, the unexplored outer region of the solar system, potentially includes thousands of similar icy, rocky small planets.
More intensive studies of Pluto begin in the spring, when the cameras and spectrometers aboard New Horizons will be able to provide image resolutions higher than the most powerful telescopes on Earth. Eventually, the spacecraft will obtain images good enough to map Pluto and its moons more accurately than achieved by previous planetary reconnaissance missions.
APL manages the New Horizons mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), headquartered in San Antonio, is the principal investigator and leads the mission. SwRI leads the science team, payload operations, and encounter science planning. New Horizons is part of the New Frontiers Program managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. APL designed, built and operates the spacecraft.
For more information about the New Horizons mission, visit:
NASA’s New Horizon’s Webpage
Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md.
Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio
PRESS RELEASE (JPL) – The Beagle 2 Mars Lander, built by the United Kingdom, has been thought lost on Mars since 2003, but has now been found in images from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Beagle 2 was released by the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter but never heard from after its expected landing. Images from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have been interpreted as showing the Beagle 2 did make a soft landing and at least partially deployed its solar panels.
A set of three observations with the orbiter’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera shows Beagle 2 partially deployed on the surface of the planet, ending the mystery of what happened to the mission more than a decade ago. They show that the lander survived its Dec. 25, 2003, touchdown enough to at least partially deploy its solar arrays.
“I am delighted that Beagle 2 has finally been found on Mars,” said Mark Sims of the University of Leicester, U.K. He was an integral part of the Beagle 2 project from the start, leading the initial study phase and was Beagle 2 mission manager. “Every Christmas Day since 2003 I have wondered what happened to Beagle 2. My Christmas Day in 2003 alongside many others who worked on Beagle 2 was ruined by the disappointment of not receiving data from the surface of Mars. To be frank I had all but given up hope of ever knowing what happened to Beagle 2. The images show that we came so close to achieving the goal of science on Mars.
HiRISE images initially searched by Michael Croon of Trier, Germany, a former member of the European Space Agency’s Mars Express operations team, provide evidence for the lander and key descent components on the surface of Mars within the expected landing area of Isidis Planitia, an impact basin close to the equator.
Subsequent re-imaging and analysis by the Beagle 2 team, the HiRISE team and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, have confirmed that the targets discovered are of the correct size, shape, color and dispersion to be Beagle 2. JPL planetary geologist Tim Parker, who has assisted in the search and processed some of the images said, “I’ve been looking over the objects in the images carefully, and I’m convinced that these are Beagle 2 hardware.”
Analysis of the images indicates what appears to be a partially deployed configuration, with what is thought to be the rear cover with its pilot/drogue chute (still attached) and main parachute close by. Due to the small size of Beagle 2 (less than 7 feet, or 2 meters across for the deployed lander) it is right at the limit of detection of HiRISE, the highest-resolution camera orbiting Mars. The targets are within the expected landing area at a distance of about three miles (five kilometers) from its center.
“I can imagine the sense of closure that the Beagle 2 team must feel,” said Richard Zurek of JPL, project scientist now for Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and previously for NASA’s still-missing 1998 Mars Polar Lander. “MRO has helped find safe landing sites on Mars for the Curiosity and Phoenix missions and has searched for missing craft to learn what may have gone wrong. It’s an extremely difficult task, as the craft are small and the search areas are vast. It takes the best camera we have in Mars orbit and work by dedicated individuals to be successful at this.”
HiRISE is operated by the University of Arizona, Tucson. The instrument was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colorado. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Project is managed for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, by JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena.
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California