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The moons of Jupiter and Saturn are dark and frozen, so what kind of oceans might they have?


Moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn, like Saturn’s moon Enceladus, reveal intriguing signs of subsurface oceans, adding allure to the quest for extraterrestrial life. Despite the excitement, the origin of these subsurface seas remains unclear. In the case of Enceladus, depicted in five infrared images, a global ocean resides beneath its icy surface, erupting into space through fractures at the moon’s south pole, highlighted in red at the bottom right. The exploration of these hidden oceans opens new possibilities for understanding the dynamics of celestial bodies and the potential for life beyond Earth.

Throughout the majority of human history, Earth stood as the sole known ocean-covered world, seemingly unique in the cosmic expanse. However, a transformative moment occurred in 1979 when NASA’s Voyager spacecraft conducted a flyby of Jupiter. During this mission, Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, previously seen as an icy domain, revealed intricate grooves and fractures, suggesting hidden dynamics beneath its surface. Francis Nimmo, a planetary scientist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, notes that after the Voyager mission, the perception of Europa shifted, with a growing suspicion that this celestial body might harbor a mysterious ocean, challenging our understanding of distant worlds.

In 1996, NASA’s Galileo spacecraft, during a pass by Europa, detected a perplexing magnetic field emanating from within the moon. Margaret Kivelson, a space physicist at the University of California, Los Angeles, leading the spacecraft’s magnetometer team, initially puzzled over its nature. Eventually, they realized that an electrically conductive fluid inside Europa was responding to Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field, suggesting the presence of a subsurface shell of liquid melt beneath the icy surface.Then, in 2004, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, upon reaching Saturn, observed Enceladus, one of its moons, with dazzling icy plumes erupting from expansive chasms at the moon’s south pole. Subsequent flythroughs by Cassini confirmed the unmistakable evidence of a salty ocean actively venting into space. These discoveries unveiled the dynamic and potentially habitable worlds hidden beneath the frozen exteriors of distant moons.

Earth’s oceans, once thought to be singular, now share cosmic company, residing in the outer solar system’s moons beneath icy shells, veiled in perpetual darkness. Europa and Enceladus are not exceptions but representatives of a broader trend, hinting at the likelihood of other moons harboring liquid oceans beneath their frozen surfaces. Despite existing in the frigid realms of our solar system for billions of years, a paradox emerges – the residual heat from their formation should have dissipated long ago, rendering any subsurface oceans solid ice. The mystery of how these distant moons, orbiting far from the sun’s warmth, maintain liquid oceans persists, inviting exploration by a forthcoming fleet of spacecraft set to delve into their enigmatic depths over the next decade.

How Saturn’s small moon Enceladus is spraying its salt water ocean into space.

Saturn’s moon Enceladus defies expectations by forcefully ejecting plumes of its saltwater ocean into space, a revelation captured by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Ongoing research, fueled by data from various spacecraft including NASA’s Juno and the James Webb Space Telescope, suggests diverse mechanisms for sustaining liquid-water oceans over eons. This knowledge holds profound implications for our understanding of life’s potential emergence beyond Earth.

This knowledge holds profound implications for our understanding of life’s potential emergence beyond Earth. The prospect of temperate, life-friendly oceans arising as a common outcome of planetary formation challenges traditional assumptions about habitability, suggesting that the vastness of our exploration for extraterrestrial life may extend far beyond the confines of the inner solar system. Despite their seemingly improbable nature, these alien seas persist as liquid realms beneath icy moons, sparking intrigue and expanding the scope of our cosmic quest.

Many of the moons that orbit Jupiter and Saturn harbor oceans beneath their surfaces.

Scientific inquiry points to the likelihood that several moons encircling Jupiter and Saturn, and potentially some around Uranus and Neptune, conceal oceans beneath their surfaces. Moons like Ganymede and Callisto, both sizable and exhibiting faint magnetic signals akin to Europa, are among the leading candidates. Saturn’s Titan, shrouded in haze, is also strongly suspected to harbor a subsurface ocean. These five moons, marked by weak magnetic signals or unique characteristics, stand out as confident contenders for liquid-water reservoirs according to the consensus within the scientific community, as articulated by Mike Sori, a planetary scientist at Purdue University.

The sole celestial body with confirmed certainty of harboring an ocean is Enceladus, an assertion emphasized by Carly Howett, a planetary scientist at the University of Oxford. In the 1980s, suspicions arose regarding Enceladus’s potential plumes, driven by the remarkably pristine appearance of Saturn’s E ring, hinting at continuous replenishment from a source, possibly one of its moons. Cassini’s observations later unveiled the moon’s south-polar plumes in action, dispelling the notion of sunlight vaporizing ice in the shell as the sole explanation, marking Enceladus as an unequivocal oceanic enigma in the cosmic tapestry.

The debate over the necessity of an ocean beneath Enceladus’s icy shell was settled when Cassini ventured through its plumes and detected sodium chloride, unequivocally confirming the presence of an ocean, as noted by Francis Nimmo, a planetary scientist. Further observations by Cassini revealed the moon’s shell undergoes significant rocking, indicating a global ocean separating it from the deeper interior. The plumes not only release hydrogen and quartz but also exhibit signs of deep-sea hydrothermal vent activity, suggesting the potential for ecosystems beyond sunlight’s reach. Frank Postberg, a planetary scientist at the Free University of Berlin, highlights the intriguing possibility of such vent systems powered by another moon, potentially of a more volcanic nature, unraveling new dimensions of celestial oceanography.

Infernal Tides of the Moon.

In June 1979, preceding Voyager 2’s imminent encounter with Europa, scientists disclosed a groundbreaking finding from Voyager 1: the sighting of colossal, umbrella-shaped plumes rising above Io, showcasing the telltale signs of multiple volcanoes in action. This revelation presented a paradox as traditional understanding suggested that moons like Io, composed mainly of ice, lacked the internal heat necessary for volcanic activity. However, a few months prior, an independent scientific team had astutely predicted Io’s potential as a hyperactive volcanic world, offering foresight that proved instrumental in unraveling the enigmatic volcanic processes observed during subsequent spacecraft missions.

The mysteries of subsurface oceans within the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, hidden beneath icy exteriors, challenge our understanding of celestial bodies and their potential habitability. The recent exploration by spacecraft like Cassini and Galileo has unveiled the unexpected presence of liquid oceans beneath the surfaces of moons like Enceladus, challenging the conventional notion that such distant moons, exposed to the frigid reaches of the solar system, should have frozen seas by now.The existence of these alien seas, along with their potential to host unique ecosystems, defies initial expectations and expands the scope of our search for extraterrestrial life. As scientists uncover the complex dynamics powering these subsurface oceans, the exploration of these celestial bodies promises to unlock further insights into the mysteries of planetary formation and the conditions necessary for life to emerge in the vast cosmic landscape.

The enigma of subsurface oceans in celestial moons, such as Europa and Enceladus, extends to the complex dynamics of tidal heating. While Europa experiences tidal heating, the degree of warmth reaching its ocean remains uncertain, as scientists debate whether it occurs within the ice shell or the rocky core beneath. Similarly, Enceladus undergoes stretching and squeezing due to its gravitational interactions with the moon Dione. Although this could theoretically generate tides warming the moon’s interior, current calculations suggest insufficient heat production to sustain a global ocean over the billions of years since the solar system’s inception.

The elusive nature of where tides create heat within these moons adds to the puzzle. Furthermore, the ever-changing orbits of celestial bodies over astronomical time introduce variability in tidal heating, with moons potentially drifting in and out of resonances, as observed in Uranian satellites Miranda and Ariel, contributing to the evolving narrative of subsurface oceans in our cosmic neighborhood.

The dance of celestial bodies, such as Enceladus and its potential partner Dione, raises intriguing questions about the longevity of their gravitational tango and its impact on the moon’s interior. While the possibility of a more recent dance initiating Enceladus’s transformation from a solid moon to one with a subsurface ocean exists, explaining this scenario proves challenging. Maintaining an ocean over time is deemed more feasible than undergoing cycles of freezing and remelting, emphasizing the complexity of Enceladus’s history. Despite certainty about the existence of its ocean, unraveling the moon’s evolutionary dance and the mechanisms preserving its liquid interior remains an unsolved puzzle, making Enceladus a celestial body that continues to defy easy explanation and stands as a captivating mystery in our exploration of the cosmos.

Large moon’s Radioactive.

The warmth within the interiors of celestial moons isn’t solely reliant on tidal forces. While Earth derives half of its internal heat from its formation, the remainder originates from the decay of radioactive elements. Similarly, icy moons, enriched with rocks, house significant amounts of uranium, thorium, and potassium, providing a prolonged source of radiogenic heating that can last for hundreds of millions to billions of years. Larger moons, such as Ganymede, Callisto, and Titan, endowed with more extensive caches of radioactive matter, may sustain oceans as an inevitable outcome of this radiogenic factor.

However, smaller moons like Enceladus lack sufficient radioactive material to maintain warmth for billions of years. One speculative solution posits a fortuitous interplay of factors, where radioactivity contributed to Enceladus’s early oceanic history, and more recent tidal heating, possibly spurred by its gravitational dance with Dione, took over. This intricate interplay suggests that the presence of oceanic moons could be a result of a serendipitous combination of tidal heating and radioactivity, leaving open the question of their prevalence or rarity across the universe.

Oceans of  the Youthful  Moon.

Controversial theories propose that Enceladus might be surprisingly young, challenging conventional notions of its celestial history. Insights from Cassini spacecraft data hint at Saturn’s rings forming relatively recently, just a few hundred million years ago. Supercomputer simulations of moon-on-moon collisions support the idea that Saturn’s rings emerged from a catastrophic clash between ancient moons around the time of Earth’s stegosaur era. This violent event not only birthed the iconic rings but also generated icy shards that contributed to the creation of new moons and potentially rejuvenated existing ones. If Saturn’s rings are indeed youthful, it opens the possibility that moons like Enceladus are also relatively recent additions to the cosmic tableau, injecting a dynamic element into our understanding of these distant celestial bodies.

The notion that Saturn’s moons, including Enceladus, might be relatively young gains traction, reflecting a shift in scientific openness. Researchers, like Jacob Kegerreis from NASA’s Ames Research Center, note increasing consideration of youthful moon scenarios, supported by recent findings about Saturn’s rings forming a few hundred million years ago. However, uncertainties persist regarding the age of Saturn’s moons, with suggestions that Enceladus could be merely tens or hundreds of millions of years old, potentially still benefitting from the heat generated during its tumultuous birth. The debate on the age of these moons remains inconclusive, as the abundance of craters on many moons implies a more extended presence in the solar system’s chaotic history. Despite intriguing possibilities of recent celestial events, the prevailing perspective maintains the moons’ ancient origins, prompting ongoing exploration and inquiry into the mysteries of our cosmic neighborhood.

Will future satellites confirm oceans on the Moon?

As the Galileo and Cassini missions fade into history, the exploration of subsurface oceans in celestial moons hinges on upcoming endeavors—the European Space Agency’s Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer and NASA’s Europa Clipper. Scheduled to reach Jupiter in the next decade, these spacecraft hold the promise of unraveling the mysteries of moons like Europa, reshaping our cosmic understanding. The Europa Clipper, set to launch in 2024, aims to “confirm” the existence of Europa’s ocean, potentially revealing a dynamic environment beneath its icy shell.

By characterizing the moon’s surface and subsurface sea, the spacecraft’s analysis of particles may uncover clues about the ocean’s composition and potential vents. Whether through tides, radioactivity, chemical processes, or recent geological events, the diverse factors contributing to the maintenance of oceans on icy moons underline the complexity and variety within our celestial neighborhood. The quest for these hidden oceans not only alters our perception of moons but fuels the exploration for signs of extraterrestrial life, marking a transformative journey in our cosmic exploration.

Surendra Uikey

My name is Surendra Uikey, I am a science blogger, I have been blogging for the past three years, because I love to write, especially on astronomy, and I believe, if you want to learn something, then start learning others, By this it will be, that you learn things in a better way. In 2019, I started, the aim of making was to connect astronomy in simple words to common people.

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