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Enceladus ocean: yes and no

Images from the Cassini spacecraft showed erupting plumes of water vapour and ice particles on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, prompting speculation a subsurface ocean might be acting as a source of liquid water. Two groups this week report evidence relevant to the search for this subsurface ocean. The results, at first sight contradictory, leave the ocean a possibility, though still a hypothetical one. Postberg et al. used the Cassini Cosmic Dust Analyser to determine the chemical composition of ice grains in Saturn’s E-ring, which consists largely of material from Enceladus. They find a population of E-ring grains rich in sodium salts, which should be possible only if the plumes originate from liquid water. Schneider et al. used Earth-based spectroscopic telescopes to search for sodium emission in the gas plumes erupting from Enceladus and found none. This is inconsistent with a direct supply from a salty ocean and suggests alternative eruption sources such as a deep ocean, a freshwater reservoir or ice. Or if there is a salty reservoir of water, some process not yet determined must be preventing the sodium from escaping into space.

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