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Monday, August 15, 2005

Saturn's Icy Moon Has "Hot Spot"

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(Space.com) The finding flipped everything scientists knew about Enceladus on its head, because what should have been a dead moon appeared to be geologically active and what was supposed to be the moon's coldest region turned out to be its warmest.

"This is as astonishing as if we'd flown past Earth and found that Antarctica was warmer than the Sahara," said John Spencer, an astronomer from the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado and a co-investigator of the Cassini mission.

The discovery of a "hot spot" on Enceladus's south pole has provided scientists with an answer that has been haunting them ever since the discovery of the "E-rings." Although composed mostly of tiny ice particles, scientists knew that Saturn's largest ring was being supplied with microscopic ice fragments, with strong hints pointing towards Enceladus but with no solid evidence--that is until now.

"The particles are so small they should not last very long," Spencer told SPACE.com. "You couldn't have the E ring just sit there for the age of the solar system. It had to be regenerated somehow..."

...geysers or water volcanoes on the surface of Enceladus spewed out clouds of ice and dust into the moon's atmosphere, and because the moon is so small and its gravity so weak, the ice and dust soon float off into space. Like drifting steam from a tugboat, Enceladus would deposit a trail of microscopic debris in its wake as it orbited Saturn—debris that Saturn's gravity would then rope in to make a ring.

Although scientists are trying to determine why the southern region of Enceladus is dramatically warmer than the rest of the world, (with the "radioactive" theory being a strong possibility) many are excited at the prospect of an active world only 300 miles wide. Like Jupiter's moon Europa, Enceladus is proving to be a geologically active world, a promising sign to many astronomers as such activity could hint to the existence of an "underground ocean."

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By Darnell Clayton • 9:52 PM • Email Post • •


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