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Enceladus, Saturn's sixth-largest moon, is an icy bundle of contradictions. It is tiny in planetary terms—the entire moon could fit snugly inside the borders of New Mexico—and yet it hosts a level of geologic activity usually reserved for the big dogs of the solar system.
From Enceladus's south pole emanate geyserlike jets, watery plumes that spew outward from a region carved up by unusually warm gashes known as "tiger stripes". But by all rights, the moon is losing much more energy through this geologically active region than it has to spare. This disparity is "the big problem of Enceladus that sticks out like a sore thumb," says planetary scientist Craig O'Neill of Macquarie University in Australia.
Saturn's icy moon Enceladus is hiding a large body of water under its surface, new research has confirmed. What is more it could even have the right conditions to host life.
Experts have analysed data from the Cassini spacecraft, which dived through the moon's water ice plume in 2008.
It revealed negatively charged water ions, which provide evidence for the presence of liquid water.
The Cassini plasma spectrometer, used to gather this data, also found other species of negatively charged ions including hydrocarbons.
'While it’s no surprise that there is water there, these short-lived ions are extra evidence for sub-surface water and where there’s water, carbon and energy, some of the major ingredients for life are present,' said lead author Andrew Coates from University College London.
'The surprise for us was to look at the mass of these ions. There were several peaks in the spectrum, and when we analysed them we saw the effect of water molecules clustering together one after the other.'
Enceladus joins a select group including Earth, Titan and comets, as the only places where negatively charged ions are known to exist in our solar system.
Negative oxygen ions were discovered in Earth’s ionosphere at the dawn of the space age. At Earth’s surface, negative water ions are present where liquid water is in motion, such as waterfalls or crashing ocean waves.
The Cassini plasma spectrometer, originally designed to take data in Saturn’s magnetic environment, measures the density, flow velocity and temperature of ions and electrons that enter the instrument.
But since the discovery of Enceladus’ water ice plume, the instrument has also successfully captured and analysed samples of material in the jets. Since then scientists have found these water products create Saturn's huge E-ring.
The new findings, reported in the journal Icurus, add to our understanding of the detailed chemistry of Enceladus’ plume and raises the possiblity of a life-sustaining environment beyond Earth.