Jets of Enceladus
The folks at NASA are baffled. They’ve known for several months that Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus emits unexpected jets. But now project scientists face a daunting task—to find the mysterious and highly improbable “source beneath the surface”.
Just a few days ago a NASA news release announced that the Cassini spacecraft exploring Saturn’s icy realm “may have found evidence of liquid water reservoirs that erupt in Yellowstone-like geysers on Saturn's moon Enceladus”.
High-resolution Cassini images show icy jets and towering plumes ejecting huge quantities of ice particles at high speed. Project scientists are struggling to understand how this occurs.
The jets are found near the south pole of the 504 kilometer diameter moon, a region recently found to be significantly warmer than models had predicted. (In the image we’ve placed here NASA assigned faint light levels different colors to enhance visibility).
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”, reports Space.com. (See our earlier Picture of the Day, “The Hot Poles of Enceladus”)
"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”.
In a classic understatement of the theoretical challenge, a NASA news release announced, “The rare occurrence of liquid water so near the surface raises many new questions about this mysterious moon”.
Water “so near the surface”? All we can see is ice on the surface—and icy plumes 480 kilometers high. But conditioned perception declares that liquid water must be present under the surface (like a Yellowstone geyser), in order for it to erupt in high-speed jets. The prior theoretical framework remains untouched even in the face of a stunning surprise.
Cassini’s imaging team leader Carolyn Porco seemed well aware of the potential discomfort from such a revelation. “We realize that this is a radical conclusion—that we may have evidence for liquid water within a body so small and so cold”, she said. "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”.
Or perhaps there is another possibility, one lying beyond the headline value of a possible environment “suitable for living organisms”. How about something more sweeping—a more accurate way of seeing the physical universe as a whole, our solar system included? How about a mind-altering discovery that could re-inspire all of science and scientific education?
The jets are signposts—part of a great collection of signposts pointing in one direction—to the inescapable but unacknowledged role of electricity in our solar system.
Despite the anomalous “warmth” of Enceladus’ south pole, it is a very cold place—minus 261 degrees Fahrenheit! But because it is warmer than it “should” be, NASA scientists jumped to the conclusion that liquid water beneath the surface must be responsible for both the temperature anomaly and the jets.
The only sources of energy available to planetary scientists are solar heating and internal heating (tidal and radioactive). Solar heating is completely inadequate, as all project scientists admit. And why would tidal heating be restricted to the southern hemisphere?
In their strain to explain the jets of Enceladus, the scientists face the same problem confronting theorists trying to explain cometary jets. And they have resorted to the same ad hoc invention of narrow surface vents above a subsurface chamber of (heated, liquid) water. There is no evidence of such vents, either on comets or on Enceladus. Nor have scientists, using their limited toolkit, ever found plausible ways of producing liquid water in the deep freeze of space
On Enceladus, the jets seem to originate from leveed channels, called "Tiger Stripes", eerily similar to channels seen on Jupiter’s moon Europa. (We’ve placed an image of the “Tiger Stripes” here). These stripes are part of a vast and intricate complex of channels on Enceladus that match perfectly the behavior of electric arcs in simple laboratory experiments.
Electrical theorist Wallace Thornhill and his colleagues suggest there is no geyser of subsurface water analogous to the Yellowstone geyser. They say that if NASA will look they will find that the jets move across the surface. And in their motion across the surface, the electric arcs that produce the jets are creating the observed channels as they excavate material from the surface and accelerate it into space.
A strong parallel to the Enceladus plumes is provided by the so-called “volcanoes” of Jupiter’s moon Io. As NASA itself has confirmed, these bright plumes have moved many miles across the surface in the course of observation over a few decades, excavating material and accelerating it upward in jets that precisely match the predictions of a “plasma gun” model.
In the case of Enceladus, a Yellowstone type geyser requires a mixture of vapor, liquid, and ice particles – such a "cold” geyser would require pure water at a temperature of 273K (0˚ C) or above, less than 10 meters from the surface. For such a string of unlikely conditions, the probability rapidly approaches zero.
Testing the possibility that Enceladus’ jets are electrical—a virtual certainty in the eyes of the electric theorists—should be an immediate priority, before scientists convince themselves that we should embark on another expensive and misguided quest for life on a tiny frozen moon in the outer solar system.
Enceladus orbits in the inner regions of Saturn's magnetosphere where the particle flux is high. But "particle flux" is typically nothing more than an astrophysical euphemism for an electrical current. And electric currents in space follow magnetic field lines. Within Saturn's magnetosphere Enceladus will encounter currents in the polar regions. It seems probable that the south polar region of Enceladus has its own magnetic field, which could concentrate an electrical current in that region. In fact, sharp gradients in the magnetic field were encountered during Cassini’s closest approach to Enceladus—a typical indicator of current boundaries.
Planetary scientists continue to perpetuate misunderstanding when they call the “Tiger Stripes” of Enceladus “cracks” that allow water to reach the surface. The channels are, in fact, precise analogs of those seen on Europa. Their frequent parallelism, their ridges or levees, and their ability to cut across all other channels in their paths stand as a definitive contradiction of the “fracturing” hypothesis. The pictures suggest something akin to a “claw” or router bit dragged across the surface in disregard for prior surface relief. That is a unique signature of an electric arc. In contrast, fracturing is invariably affected by a pre-existing surface channel or groove, as anyone who has ever worked with a glasscutter knows very well.
The puzzle of the "Tiger Stripes" parallelism can be simply explained by the phase-locked rotation of Enceladus about Saturn (it keeps the same face toward the gas giant), working in combination with the symmetrical, axially aligned magnetic field of Saturn. This unique alignment will naturally cause the magnetic field lines and their associated discharge currents to move in parallel to each other near the pole of Enceladus as it orbits Saturn. (Further constraints on the pattern may be due to a remnant intrinsic magnetic field in the south polar region).
As for the anomalous temperature readings in the region of jet activity, Thornhill suggests that the readings are way below what project scientists will find if they will measure the temperature at the focal point of a surface jet. Electric discharges become focused and hottest where they touch down on a surface. We are reminded that it was Thornhill who alone predicted that the plumes of the icy moon Io would be much hotter than NASA had ever contemplated. When the Galileo probe took a close look, the radiation overloaded the camera. NASA had not prepared for the surprise. (See “Io's "Volcanoes" Blur Scientific Vision”)