Saturn’s moon Dione harbors subsurface oceanStaff Writer | October 8, 2016
A subsurface ocean lies deep within Saturn's moon Dione, according to new data from the Cassini mission to Saturn.
Space Titan and Enceladus are known to hide global oceans
In this study, researchers of the Royal Observatory of Belgium show gravity data from recent Cassini flybys can be explained if Dione's crust floats on an ocean located 100 kilometers below the surface.
The ocean is several tens of kilometers deep and surrounds a large rocky core. Seen from within, Dione is very similar to its smaller but more famous neighbor Enceladus, whose south polar region spurts huge jets of water vapor into space.
Dione seems to be quiet now, but its broken surface bears witness of a more tumultuous past. The study is published online this week in Geophysical Research Letters.
The authors modeled the icy shells of Enceladus and Dione as global icebergs immersed in water, where each surface ice peak is supported by a large underwater keel. Scientists have used this approach in the past but previous results have predicted a very thick crust for Enceladus and no ocean at all for Dione.
"As an additional principle, we assumed that the icy crust can stand only the minimum amount of tension or compression necessary to maintain surface landforms," said Mikael Beuthe, lead author of the new study. "More stress would break the crust down to pieces."
According to the new study, Enceladus' ocean is much closer to the surface, especially near the south pole where geysers erupt through a few kilometers of crust. These findings agree well with the discovery last year by Cassini that Enceladus undergoes large back-and-forth oscillations, called libration, during its orbit. Enceladus' libration would be much smaller if its crust was thicker.
As for Dione, the new study finds it harbors a deep ocean between its crust and core. "Like Enceladus, Dione librates but below the detection level of Cassini," said Antony Trinh, co-author of the new study. "A future orbiter hopping around Saturn's moons could test this prediction."
Dione's ocean has probably survived for the whole history of the moon, and thus offers a long-lived habitable zone for microbial life. ■