Care for a dip in hot springnear Saturn?
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Hot springs could be bubbling beneath the icy surface of a tiny Saturn moon. That's what new research from space suggests.
The moon is called Enceladus. It's pronounced ehn-SEHL'-uh-duhs.
Earth is the only other known body in the solar system where hot water and rocks interact underground.
That type of activity would make the Saturn moon an even more attractive place in the hunt for microbial life. On Earth, scientists have found weird life forms living in hydrothermal vents on the ocean bottom. What's especially unusual is that there is no sunlight.
The research comes from Cassini. It is the NASA-European spacecraft. It was launched in 1997. Its mission is to explore Saturn and its numerous moons from orbit. Cassini previously uncovered a vast ocean beneath Enceladus. It spotted a giant plume of gas and ice streaming from cracks in the south polar region.
In the latest study, a group was led by Cassini team member Sean Hsu. He works at the University of Colorado. The group used spacecraft observations and computer modeling. They showed that the plume is connected to what's happening on the lunar sea floor.
Judging by their size and makeup, the team believes particles in the plume are the result of hot water. It likely is coming into contact with rocks on the ocean floor. The resulting mineral-rich water shoots up through the icy crust. Then it erupts into space in a plume of gas and ice. Some particles settle around Saturn. They replenish its biggest ring.
The new work also suggests that the ocean is deeper than previous estimates. It is more than 30 miles deep below the icy crust. No details were provided on how big the ocean might be. But the Cassini team last year said it could be as big as or even bigger than North America's Lake Superior.
Cassini should get a better glimpse of the plume later this year. That's when it flies through it. The spacecraft will pass within 30 miles above Enceladus' surface.
The findings were published online in the journal Nature.
Gabriel Tobie of France's University of Nantes wrote an accompanying editorial. He said the environment beneath Enceladus appears similar to the underwater system of hot springs and towering spires nicknamed "LostCity." It's in the mid-Atlantic.
So how can scientists be sure if there are hot springs on Enceladus?
It would take future missions. A lander would be required on the surface of Enceladus to "fully reveal the secrets of its hot springs," Tobie wrote.
Critical thinking challenge: Why is the research based on Cassini instead of astronauts?