Image: Ski Enceladus
Europlanet
An artist's conception shows a scene on Enceladus, featuring a 3-mile-wide "tiger stripe" ridge in the foreground. The strong blue-green color indicates freshly exposed water ice. A hazy, bright Mimas hangs over the scene, surrounded by a faint moon ring or halo formed by the refraction of light by fine snow falling to the surface.
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updated 10/4/2011 9:27:18 PM ET 2011-10-05T01:27:18

Here's a winter ski resort you probably haven't thought of: Enceladus, a moon circling Saturn, which, in addition to ice-spewing volcanoes, has a constant snowfall of fine, powdery crystals.

"The color is very pale pinky, I think," lead researcher Paul Schenk, with the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, told Discovery News. "It is believed to be a salty water ice snow and that might give it a slight tint."

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Using data collected by NASA’s Saturn-orbiting Cassini probe, Schenk's team built computer models and found that icy particles blasting out from the moon’s hot surface vents, known as "tiger stripes," return in regular, predictable patterns.

The crystals are very tiny — only a fraction of a millimeter in length and about a micron or two in diameter. A micron is about the width of a red blood cell. But the icy snowfall, finer than talcum powder, builds up steadily over time, accumulating in drifts that vary from a few millimeters in height to more than 300 feet.


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"I think most people though maybe some plume dust could fall on Enceladus but without the models, the color mapping and the high-res images (from Cassini) I don't think anyone really understood where it would go or if it would have any real thickness," Schenk said.

While snow falls on Enceladus' surface, evidence mounts for an underground ocean swirling beneath the moon's frozen crust, another team of researchers, also using Cassini data, suggest in a related report.

Analysis of the fracture patterns in the ice surrounding the moon’s southern pole matches what would created by a floating shell of icy on top of a global liquid ocean, reports geologist Simon Kattenhorn and colleagues at the University of Idaho.

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"This finding increases to at least three the number of outer-planet satellites likely to possess a subsurface liquid water layer," the researchers write in the Sept. 22 edition of Geophysical Research Letters.

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The ice fracture patterns are the latest in a growing body of evidence that Enceladus has an underground ocean. Researchers previously found salts in the icy plumes blasting off the moon’s surface. Salts typically are remnants of rock diluted in water. Also, the force with which the plumes blast particles into space can best be explained by water.

"A year ago, we weren't completely sure that there was liquid water underneath the surface of Enceladus that was causing the plumes," astronomer Bonnie Buratti, with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., told Discovery News. "Now there are a number of lines of evidence."

Schenk presented his research at a planetary sciences conference under way in France this week.

© 2012 Discovery Channel

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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