Enceladus: An Ocean Deep and Wide

An image of the sky with the text An Ocean Deep and Wide
A diagram of Enceladus interior and ice vapor

“Water provides the key ingredient for a habitable environment, and thus astrobiological potential, which is why the search for liquid water elsewhere in the solar system has been one of the primary directives for NASA,” University of Idaho geology professor Simon Kattenhorn explains.

According to the findings of geological sciences doctoral candidate Alex Patthoff and geomechanics scientist Kattenhorn, his research advisor, there may be more ocean on Enceladus than planetary scientists first suspected.

Fresh Insight into
the Cosmos

“Kattenhorn and Patthoff have provided intriguing evidence that the ocean may be global,” said Robert Pappalardo, senior research

scientist in the Planetary Science Section of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Others argue that it is regional. Additional work is needed to better understand which is correct.”

The Idaho research team’s evidence comes from studying the fracture patterns in recently active areas on the surface near Enceladus' south pole. They found that most of the cracks in this region could be grouped into one of four sets, where the fractures of one group share a common orientation and relative age that is different from the other sets. The differing orientations and ages suggest the icy carapace of Enceladus has rotated through time, presumably above a watery ocean.

"While the initial evidence is not conclusive, it points strongly toward the existence of a global ocean in the recent geological history of Enceladus,” said Patthoff.

“The discovery of evidence of a global ocean on Enceladus represents a major scientific advance,” said Kattenhorn. “That a discovery of this magnitude comes out of the University of Idaho is a testament to the far-reaching science being done at our institution.”

Reverberations of the Award-Winning Research

The research, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, has already secured Patthoff's selection as the 2012 recipient of the national Pellas-Ryder Award for best peer-reviewed student research paper in planetary science.

Patthoff is a NASA Earth and Space Sciences Graduate Fellow and was named the Outstanding Graduate Student in Research and Creative Activity at the University of Idaho in 2011. He has earned a competitive postdoctoral fellowship from NASA at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., beginning in early 2013. His research there will explore the formation of deformation ridges on numerous icy moons of the outer solar system.

Kattenhorn’s research interests include the characterization of fracture and fault systems in three dimensions and the mechanics of fault failure as applied to earthquake behavior and fault evolution—which have applications to the geology of other planets and moons. He is currently pursuing a NASA-funded investigation of the development of faults and fractures in the ice crust of Jupiter's moon Europa, as well Saturn's moons Enceladus, Titan and Dione. Faulting and volcanological problems on Mars also are focal points of his research.