New NASA instrument to focus on Enceladus

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  Last updated January 11, 2018 at 10:47 am


NASA scientists are developing an ambitious new plan to study the geysers that spew water and ice from the surface of the south pole of Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

This graphic illustrates a theory on how water interacts with rock at the bottom of the moon’s ocean, producing hydrogen gas. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Southwest Research Institute

Dubbed the SELFI (for Submillimeter Enceladus Life Fundamentals Instrument), the remote-sensing radio instrument represents a significant advance on current submillimeter-wavelength devices.

“Submillimeter wavelengths, which are in the range of very high-frequency radio, give us a way to measure the quantity of many different kinds of molecules in a cold gas. We can scan through all the plumes to see what’s coming out from Enceladus,” SELFI Principal Investigator Gordon Chin said.

“Water vapour and other molecules can reveal some of the ocean’s chemistry and guide a spacecraft onto the best path to fly through the plumes to make other measurements directly.”

The instrument is being developed by Chin’s team at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

It will measure traces of chemicals in the plumes of water vapour and icy particles that emanate from fissures, also known as tiger stripes, on Enceladus.

“The spectral lines are so discrete that we can identify and quantify chemicals with no confusion whatsoever,” Goddard engineer Paul Racette said.

Scientists hope this will give them more insights into the ocean that beneath the surface – and the possibility that it may harbour life.

NASA’s recent Cassini mission threw Enceladus into the spotlight when it discovered plumes spewing forth water vapour, carbon dioxide, methane, and other gases from 100 sites on the moon’s surface.

Before the Cassini fly-by, scientists thought that Enceladus was frozen solid. A telltale wobble in its orbit picked up by Cassini indicated the ocean that lay beneath the surface.

About the Author

Bill Condie
Bill is former Head of Publishing at the Royal Institution of Australia. Previously he was Publisher of the popular science magazine, Cosmos, based in Melbourne, Australia. Bill has been a journalist for more than 30 years and his work has been published in Cosmos magazine, The Guardian, The Observer, The Times, The Daily Telegraph and the London Evening Standard.