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This important measurement was made using Cassini's INMS instrument, which detects gases with the goal of determining their composition. INMS was designed to sample the upper atmosphere of Saturn's large, smoggy moon Titan. However, after Cassini's surprising discovery of a tall plume if icy spray erupting from cracks on Enceladus in 2005, planetary scientists turned its detectors to that small moon.
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The team's findings can also be applied to exoplanets, which are planets that circle stars beyond our own Sun. Some super-Earth exoplanets, which are rocky planets more massive than our own, have been proposed as "water worlds" covered with churning oceans. Could they have life? Perhaps. The potential would certainly be there. Dr. Vance and his team believe laboratory experiments and more sophisticated modeling of exotic oceans might help to find answers to these very profound questions.
The precise chemical composition of these very alien lakes and seas remained unknown until 2014, when Cassini's radar instrument detected Ligeia Mare, now known to be Titan's second-largest hydrocarbon-filled lake. Ligeia Mare is brimming with an abundance of sloshing methane, and this enormous liquid reservoir is approximately the same size as two of Earth's Great Lakes combined--Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. Many planetary scientists think that the seabed of Ligeia Mare may be blanketed with a thick layer of sludge that is composed of organic-rich compounds.
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However, it was little Enceladus that gave astronomers their greatest shock. Even though the existence of Enceladus has been known since it was discovered by William Herschel in 1789, its enchantingly weird character was not fully appreciated until this century. Indeed, until the Voyagers flew past it, little was known about the moon. However, Enceladus has always been considered one of the more interesting members of Saturn's abundantly moonstruck family, for a number of very good reasons. First of all, it is amazingly bright. The quantity of sunlight that an object in our Solar System reflects back is termed its albedo, and this is calculated primarily by the color of the object's ground coating. The albedo of the dazzling Enceladus is almost a mirror-like 100%. Basically, this means that the surface of the little moon is richly covered with ice crystals--and that these crystals are regularly and frequently replenished. When the Voyagers flew over Enceladus in the 1980s, they found that the object was indeed abundantly coated with glittering ice. It was also being constantly, frequently repaved. Immense basins and valleys were filled with pristine white, fresh snow. Craters were cut in half--one side of the crater remaining a visible cavity pockmarking the moon's surface, and the other side completely buried in the bright, white snow. Remarkably, Enceladus circles Saturn within its so-called E ring, which is the widest of the planet's numerous rings. Just behind the moon is a readily-observed bulge within that ring, that astronomers determined was the result of the sparkling emission emanating from icy volcanoes (cryovolcanoes) that follow Enceladus wherever it wanders around its parent planet. The cryovolanoes studding Enceladus are responsible for the frequent repaving of its surface. In 2008, Cassini confirmed that the cryovolanic stream was composed of ordinary water, laced with carbon dioxide, potassium salts, carbon monoxide, and a plethora of other organic materials. Tidal squeezing, caused by Saturn and the nearby sister moons Dione and Tethys, keep the interior of Enceladus pleasantly warm, and its water in a liquid state--thus allowing the cryovolcanoes to keep spewing out their watery eruptions. The most enticing mystery, of course, is determining exactly how much water Enceladus holds. Is there merely a lake-sized body of water, or a sea, or a global ocean? The more water there is, the more it will circulate and churn--and the more Enceladus quivers and shakes, the more likely it is that it can brew up a bit of life.
"For the smallest craters that we're looking at, we think we're starting to see where the Moon has gone through so much fracturing that it gets to a point where the porosity of the crust just stays at some constant level. You can keep impacting it and you'll hit regions where you'll increase porosity here and decrease it there, but on average it stays constant," Dr. Soderblom continued to explain to the press on September 10, 2015.
Earth's Moon is the largest and brightest object suspended in the darkness of the starry night sky. It is both lovely and enchanting, and it has, since ancient times, inspired curiosity and wonder in human beings who gaze up at the mysterious sky after the Sun has set. As such, Earth's Moon has long served as the inspiration for imaginative, wild and marvelous tales--it is the stuff of mythology and folklore. The "Man in the Moon" refers to several fantastic images of a human face that certain traditions see outlined in the gleaming disk of the full Moon. In November 2013, astronomers using data from the lunar-orbiting twins composing NASA's Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission, announced that they have been acquiring new and fascinating insight into how this bewitching "face," etched on our Moon's disk, received its captivating and enchanting good looks!