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Cracked Features on Enceladus Are Very Young.

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Infrared mapping spectrometer image of Enceladus.
Infrared mapping spectrometer image of Enceladus. Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has discovered that the long cracks discovered on the surface of Saturn's Moon Enceladus are actually quite young, between 10 and 1,000 years old. These findings support a previous discovery that Enceladus has a very active geology, and its surface features have been changing quite recently. These cracks act like vents, allowing ice and vapour to spew out. The fact that Enceladus is so active came as a surprise to scientists, as it's hard for an object this small to hold onto its heat.

The Cassini spacecraft has discovered the long, cracked features dubbed "tiger stripes" on Saturn's icy Moon Enceladus are very young - between 10 and 1,000 years young.

These findings support previous results showing the moon's southern pole is active. The pole had episodes of geologic activity as recently as 10 years ago. These cracked features are approximately 130 kilometers long (80 miles), spaced about 40 kilometers (25 miles) apart and run roughly parallel to one another.

The cracks act like vents. They spew vapor and fine ice water particles that have become ice crystals. This crystallization process can be dated, which helped scientists pin down the age of the features.

"There appears to be a continual supply of fresh, crystalline ice at the tiger stripes, which could have been very recently resurfaced," said Dr. Bonnie Buratti. She is a team member of the Cassini visual and Infrared mapping spectrometer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "Enceladus is constantly evolving and getting a makeover."

This finding is especially exciting because ground-based observers have seen tiny Enceladus brighten as its south pole was visible from Earth. Cassini allows scientists to see close up that the brightening is caused by geologic activity. When NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft flew over the moon's north pole in 1981, it did not observe the tiger stripes.

Cassini's visual and Infrared mapping spectrometer shows water ice exists in two forms on Enceladus: in pristine, crystalline ice and radiation-damaged amorphous ice.

When ice comes out of the "hot" cracks, or "tiger stripes," at the south pole, it forms as fresh, crystalline ice. As the ice near the poles remains cold and undisturbed, it ages and converts to amorphous ice. Since this process is believed to take place over decades or less, the tiger stripes must be very young.

"One of the most fascinating aspects of Enceladus is that it is so very small as icy moons go, but so very geophysically active. It's hard for a body as small as Enceladus to hold onto the heat necessary to drive such large-scale geophysical phenomena, but it has done just that," said Dr. Bob Brown. Brown is a team leader for the visual and Infrared mapping spectrometer at the University of Arizona, Tucson. "Enceladus and its incredible geology is a marvelous puzzle for us to figure out."

Adding to the already mounting evidence for an active body is the correlation of results from multiple instruments. Cassini's cameras provided detailed images of the south polar cap, in which the tiger stripe fractures were found to be among the hottest features.

The timing of the craft's ion and neutral mass spectrometer and the cosmic dust analyzer observations seems to indicate the vapor and fine material are originating from the "hot" polar cap region. These data also indicate the production of water vapor and ejection of fine material are connected, as they are in a comet. This suggests that vapor and dust-sized icy material are coming from the tiger stripes.

Enceladus is on a short list of bodies in our solar system where scientists have found internal activity. The others are the volcanoes on Jupiter's Moon Io and geysers on Neptune's Moon Triton.

Data for these measurements were taken during Cassini's closest flyby on July 14, 2005. The spacecraft came within 175 kilometers (109 miles) of the surface of Enceladus. Enceladus is 500 kilometers (314 miles) across and has the most reflective surface in the solar system.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington.

For information about the Cassini-Huygens mission on the Web, visit http://www.nasa.gov/cassini and http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov. For information about NASA and agency programs on the Web, visit http://www.nasa.gov/home/index.html.

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