Home: Figments: The Geysers of Enceladus

The Geysers of Enceladus

Plumes of water and ice are expelled from Enceladus. On the left is a regular monochrome shot, the right is the same image with false color added to show the extent of the plumes.

Some scientific discoveries are made for writers. Today’s news from NASA concerning Saturn’s moon Enceladus is a perfect example. They are speculating about the presence of life on the moon:

 We realize that this is a radical conclusion — that we may have evidence for liquid water within a body so small and so cold,” said Dr. Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging team leader at Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colo. “However, if we are right, we have significantly broadened the diversity of solar system environments where we might possibly have conditions suitable for living organisms.”

High-resolution Cassini images show icy jets and towering plumes ejecting large quantities of particles at high speed. Scientists examined several models to explain the process. They ruled out the idea that the particles are produced by or blown off the moon’s surface by vapor created when warm water ice converts to a gas. Instead, scientists have found evidence for a much more exciting possibility — the jets might be erupting from near-surface pockets of liquid water above 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit), like cold versions of the Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone.

Even if they do not find any living organisms in the water, the beauty of the images alone inspire me. Come, to the not too distant future, and imagine with me…

Summer Vacation, 2067

EnceladusThrough the shaded window, we watched the whitish pea grow into a planet. I had to remind myself to breathe, and I’m quite sure my mouth was hanging open. We all felt like giddy tourists, and indeed we were—passengers aboard the first solar cruise to the moons of Saturn. There had been no ports to shop in, no beaches to comb, and yet you could have pictured us in flowery Hawaiian shirts, complete with cameras and sunhats.

Actually, we didn’t need cameras… the ship took care of that aspect, even catching you and the appropriate scenery in those “wish-you-were-here” postcard shots. I hoped to get a shot of myself near the geysers of Enceladus, so my mother could frame it, and set it on her mantle. There is already one there of me, at age 7, gaping at Old Faithful in Yellowstone.

As we approached the tiny moon, little more than 300 miles across, we began to see features of the varied terrain. To the north, the land was pocked with craters, a familiar sight by now. The rest of the planet was an array of smooth plains and canyons. Liquid water was there, somewhere; water that may have carved out canyons to rival those of the Rockies. I thought of the volcanic processes beneath the surface, turbulent magma rushing through underground vents, heating the water to boiling. And we were almost there!

Ester was chatting again. I’d learned to tune her out for most of trip, but now, I was actually interested.

“It was a grand battle,” she was saying. “Gaia and her kids had the strength—they weren’t called the “Gigantes” for nothing—but the gods and goddesses were clever. Gaia was looking for some herbs, certain to give the Gigantes the edge over the Olympians, but Zeus caught wind of her plan, and kept the sun from rising and the moon from shining. He then went and picked all of it that he could find, before Gaia could get her hands on it.”

“Without their herbal supplements, the Gigantes were basically screwed. Hercules joined in the battle, and fought alongside Zeus, Hera, Apollo, and Athena. Pretty soon the Gigantes were getting their eyes plucked out with arrows and their skin pulled off and used for armor. Nasty stuff. Enceladus was one of the Gigantes, as you know, but managed to escape the bloodiness.”

“So, what, he escaped?” I asked, my curiosity growing.

“Well… he tried,” she answered. “He didn’t get very far before Athena picked up the island of Sicily and threw it at him.”

“Threw the whole island?”

Mt. Etna erupts--the breath of Enceladus“Yup. Poor Enceladus was buried beneath. Gigantes don’t exactly die, I guess, because he’s still down there, supposedly. They say the eruptions of Mt. Etna are the breath of Enceladus.”

Sam, who I figured wasn’t listening (he’d been fiddling with the “automatic” settings on the environmental controls for the past hour) leaned back in his chair and raised an eyebrow. “I guess he wasn’t that thrilled that Hershel named a moon after him. Etna’s still active… blows all the time… Though not as often as these geysers here… check it out, the show is starting.”

Sure enough, the moon was coming to life. Enceladus filled most of the window now, except a crescent of black space at the lower left. The sharp line of crescent began to blur, as steam began to rise from the surface. For a moment, the steam billowed from the fissure, until quite suddenly, was broken by the largest spray of water and ice I’d ever seen.

We all gasped—the geyser shot far into space, seeming to reach for the next moon, or even for Saturn itself. As soon as the first reached into the sky, a line of geysers shot up alongside. A symphony of water and ice, far from Earth—Yellowstone had nothing of this scale. In silence, we watched, as the show went on.

I wondered if, amongst the drops of water and ice, some tiny organisms were taking their first trip into space. I remembered the variety of extremophilic bacteria that was found thriving in the The geysers of Enceladus eruptboiling waters of Yellowstone when I was young—why not here, too?

Suddenly, my faint memories of Yellowstone, now dwarfed by the waters of Enceladus, reminded me why I had come. I turned to the interior of the ship, in the vague direction of the ever-recording cameras, and waved.

“Hi Mom! Wish you were here!”

The end.

PS: I thought I’d include some science fact, along with the science fiction, so here are a few extra tidbits:

Coincidentally, NASA has been calling the moon “Enceladus the Storyteller” …perhaps I’m not the only one who was inspired. On the Cassini site, they’ve posted this quicktime movie of the fountains of Enceladus. They also have this graphic, explaining how the cold geysers might work:

The cold geysers of Enceladus

As they decribe:

The model shows how proposed underground reservoirs of pressurized liquid water above 273 degrees Kelvin (0 degrees Celsius) could fuel geysers that send jets of icy material into the skies above the moon’s south pole. In the graphic, the vent to the surface pierces one of the “tiger stripe” fractures seen in Cassini views of the southern polar terrain. Temperatures increase with depth.

Mt. Etna photo from How Volcanoes Work from the geology department in San Diego. All the images of Enceladus are from NASA.