Icy moon and distant rings

By Phil Plait | March 17, 2011 7:02 am

[REMINDER: I’m guest hosting Dr. Kiki’s Science Hour today at 4:00 Pacific time!]

Ya know, for a tiny ball of ice, Saturn’s moon Enceladus really knows how to pose for a picture:

Cassini snapped this shot from 34,000 km (20,000 miles) away, looking down on the northern hemisphere of Enceladus. Peeking just over the edge is a slice of Saturn’s rings, too.

Most of the action on Enceladus is at the south pole, where geysers of water are erupting. But up at the other end of the 500 km wide moon — for comparison, Colorado is 600 km across — it’s still pretty nifty. The reflective, icy surface is saturated with craters, including that interesting triple smackdown on the left. Something must have broken apart as it hit… though I’ll note the two big craters are elongated, indicating a very shallow angle of impact, while the third smaller one is round. It may only coincidentally line up with the other two. If that’s the case, maybe a binary asteroid hit here long, long ago.

Cracks snake their way across the surface too. Enceladus certainly has liquid water under its perpetually frozen exterior, though there’s some debate over whether it’s a global ocean or pockets of liquid. Still, the remarkable thing is that a moon smaller than some states and frozen to a temperature of -200°C could still have liquid water hidden beneath at all. I remember, as a kid, reading books by scientists wondering if we’d find water in space. Cripes. It’s everywhere!

Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Related posts:

Enceladus sprays anew
Enceladus on full afterburner (my favorite pic of the moon)
Crescent planet, crescent moon
A marvelous night for a (Saturn) moon dance

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: Cassini, Enceladus, Saturn

Comments (34)

  1. BigBob

    I see the cracks, and especially on the embiggened version, about 6 cms up and 4 cms across from the bottom left corner there’s what appears to be a trail of some sort, difficult to make out since it isn’t face on but it seems to cover some distance. Camel trail?

  2. Jenna

    I think those cracks look like sledding trails and that crator looks like a snow man. Life on Saturn’s moons? I think yes!

  3. I think Enceladus is hoping to kick off a career as a super-model. Cassini shure is one gifeted photographer!

    (Okay, enough anthropomorphising!)

  4. Quiet Desperation

    Pretty, but I find desolate vistas like that kind of depressing at times.

    Some of that ice needs to be in martinis. Around blackjack tables. Inside comfy, heated, pressurized space casinos.

    Cassini shure is one gifeted photographer!

    I forget which probe, but there was one where I checked the raw images every morning at work, and I learned how NASA really cherry picks the best shots. It’s just like what nature photographers go through. You had several hundred crappy pictures, or shots of just nothing, for every great image.

    Life on Saturn’s moons? I think yes!

    Especially after 10pm when the more risque lounge shows start.

  5. CameronSS

    How small would a body have to be to notice the curvature? Obviously on Earth the curvature is almost undetectable while standing on the surface, but how small would it need to be for it to be noticeably un-flat? 500km? 100km? 50km?

  6. Nigel Depledge
  7. Nigel Depledge

    @ CameronSS (5) –
    I think only a teeny bit smaller than Earth.

    If you climb even a modest-sized mountain on Earth and look at a flat horizon (e.g. if your mountain is close to a coast, you can look at the sea’s horizon), you can see the curvature of the Earth.

  8. Douglas Troy

    Holy Galactic Snowball Phil Man! That’s a really cool (ha!) picture.

  9. tmac57

    Has anyone alerted Richard Hoagland about the snowman on Enceladus yet?

  10. Lupine

    I think I see tauntauns down there.

  11. Mandarb

    I tried to get Phil’s attention on twitter about this, but this is just as good. http://www.outsideinthemovie.com/ is using photos from Cassini to make a iMax film, you need to watch the clip on the site, it’s freaking awesome.

  12. About those 3 adjacent craters…

    Could it be that by the time the second one hit, the moon rotated a bit, and then rotated some more when the third one hit? The first one hitting at an angle, the second less angled, and the third one almost straight down?

    To me, it kinda looks like the second hit spilled a little in the first “hole”, and the third one spilled a little in the second…

  13. Robert S-R

    People, I think you’re looking at the snowman all wrong. Clearly this is not a snowman built with balls of snow, but more of a large image on the ground akin to the Nazca Lines in Peru. Clearly these were not people building snowmen, but snowmen building self-portraits!

  14. This one isn’t bad either: Enceladus in Sol-shine and Saturn-shine:


  15. Also, check out the grooves in this mosaic, of which Phil’s image is one segment of:


  16. Jeff

    You are right, water is everywhere. When I saw this image, it reminded me of images of Europa, right?

  17. Lorena
  18. Cassini really is doing an amazing job. I mean there have been a good number of probes and quite a few are still active, but I just love Cassini’s photos. I mean I guess it’s pretty lucky to have such a great assignment.

  19. Dave

    Awesome photo. Makes me want to go sledding in a one of the craters, but that might not be so much fun in low gravity.

  20. fintin

    Wow. All these small moons seem to have lots of water on them, from Europa to Enceladus. And who knows, there may be some tiny life somewhere among the vast frozen oceans. Cassini just amazing.

  21. Brian Too

    It’s striking to me the effects of wind, weather and seasonality here on Earth (and the apparent lack thereof on Enceladus). Coming to the end of a long, cold winter, you just don’t see crater fields in the snow and ice on Earth. Or if you do, I’ve never seen them!

  22. Messier Tidy Upper

    Superluminous photo. 😀

    What a giant ball of vanilla icecream! With a hot surprise bit inside too! Caramel maybe? Flambé Enceladus? 😉

    Thankyou again Cassini & Phil Plait. 8)

    @ 23. Dave : Snowboarding or ski-jumping might be pretty astonishing fun there though!

  23. s

    I would think that the water under the surface retains its liquid form due to the mass of the solid above it.

    The pressure from the surface would keep the water in liquid form?

  24. VJBinCT

    Wow. Hoth stuff!

  25. This is another one of Phil’s tricks!

  26. Phillipe – nope. The ‘thing’ would have broken up fairly close to the gravitational well that caused the disturbance, not way out in space. Also, what would have caused the broken pieces to separate enough to give such large ‘touchdown’ time dispersals?
    Personally I think the intelligent Designer is going to draw an ant. Watch for future cracking!

  27. bob smith
  28. scott

    Why do most of the cracks, esp. in the center and “north”, run fairly parallel to each other? Tidal movement under the ice? Is there such a thing as ice tectonics?

  29. I doubt it that a reader will make it this far down the comments section, but here goes anyway

    In June 2011, DAWN spacecraft began sending images of Vesta, and the most interesting feature (apart from the large impact crater that dominates Vesta and was known about) is a snowman, just like the one on Enceladus! What are the odds that impact craters would be spaced next to each other in the exact same configuration on two very different bodies? Or that something broke apart as it hit those bodies in the exact same way?! It makes one wonder … are these really impact craters we are looking at?

    Watch this video on youtube and see how ridiculously similar chains of craters can be created by an amateur within the first few seconds of the recording, then tell me if you still believe accretion theory is fact and not fiction. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3rqQnUCiWQo


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