Saturn’s death star-like moon may have a vast underground ocean

Saturn’s death star-like moon may have a vast underground ocean

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This image provided by NASA on February 13, 2010, shows Saturn’s moon Mimas and the large Herschel crater, captured by the Cassini spacecraft. The crater is 130 kilometers (80 miles) wide. Astronomers have reported the best evidence yet of a vast, relatively new ocean beneath Mimas’ icy outer layer, thought to be between 5 million and 15 million years old. The results were published on Wednesday, February 7, 2024, in the journal Nature. Image source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute via AP

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This image provided by NASA on February 13, 2010, shows Saturn’s moon Mimas and the large Herschel crater, captured by the Cassini spacecraft. The crater is 130 kilometers (80 miles) wide. Astronomers have reported the best evidence yet of a vast, relatively new ocean beneath Mimas’ icy outer layer, thought to be between 5 million and 15 million years old. The results were published on Wednesday, February 7, 2024, in the journal Nature. Image source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute via AP

Astronomers have discovered the best evidence yet of a vast, young ocean beneath the icy outer layer of a small moon similar to Saturn’s death star.

The French-led team analyzed changes in Mimas’s orbit and rotation, and reported on Wednesday that the ocean hidden 12 to 18 miles (20 to 30 kilometers) beneath the frozen crust was more likely than an elongated rocky core. Scientists based their findings on observations of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which monitored Saturn and more than 140 of its moons for more than a decade before diving into the ringed planet’s atmosphere in 2017 and burning up.

Barely 250 miles (400 kilometers) in diameter, the cratered moon lacks cracks and geysers — typical signs of subsurface activity — like Saturn’s Enceladus and Jupiter’s Europa.

“Mimas is perhaps the most likely place to look for a global ocean, and liquid water in general,” co-author Valery Linney from the Paris Observatory said in an email. “This appears to be a potentially habitable world. But no one knows how much time would be needed for life to arise.”

The results were published in the journal nature.

The ocean is thought to fill half the volume of Mimas, according to Lenny. However, they only represent 1.2% to 1.4% of Earth’s oceans due to the Moon’s small size. Despite its small size, Mimas has the second largest impact crater of any moon in the solar system, which is why it has been compared to the fictional Death Star space station in the “Star Wars” movie.

“The idea that relatively young icy moons could harbor young oceans is inspiring,” Mateja Cook of the SETI Institute and Alyssa Rose Roden of the Southwest Research Institute wrote in an accompanying editorial. They were not part of the study.

This subterranean ocean is believed to be between 5 million and 15 million years old, is too young to define the moon’s surface, and its overall temperature would be near freezing, according to Lenny. But at the bottom of the sea, he said, the water temperature could be much warmer.

Co-author Nick Cooper of Queen Mary University of London said the presence of a “remarkably young” ocean of liquid water makes Mimas a prime candidate for studying the origin of life.

Discovered by English astronomer William Herschel in 1789, Mimas was named after a giant in Greek mythology.

more information:
Valerie Linney, a newly formed ocean inside Saturn’s moon Mimas, nature (2024). doi: 10.1038/s41586-023-06975-9. www.nature.com/articles/s41586-023-06975-9

Magazine information:
nature

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