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Saturn’s moon Enceladus, new plasma laboratory

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Image taken by Cassini spacecraft shows plumes which spew out Saturn's moon Enceladus.

Recent data and findings from NASA’s Cassini mission have revealed that Saturn’s moon Enceladus can provide scientists with a laboratory for watching unusual behavior of plasma.

According to two papers published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, scientists can observe the theorized condition of “dusty plasma” near Enceladus.

Dusty plasma exists in comet tails and dust rings around the sun. Therefore, scientists do not have the opportunity to directly study its characteristics in place.

The data and information from Cassini’s instruments have shown that the usual “heavy” and “light” charged particles in normal plasma are reversed in Enceladus’s South Polar Region.

“These are truly exciting discoveries for plasma science. Cassini is providing us with a new plasma physics laboratory,” said Tamas Gombosi, Cassini fields and particles interdisciplinary scientist at the University of Michigan.

About 100 kilograms of water vapor per second spray out from the cracks in Enceladus’s South Polar Region. The ejected plume consists of icy grains and neutral gas that is mainly water vapor. The plume is then converted into charged particles interacting with the plasma in Saturn’s magnetosphere.

The nature and structure of the gas-dust-plasma mixture has been revealed by using the data sent from Cassini. However, scientists are surprised because of the differences in the size of the grains, ranging from small water clusters (few water molecules) to 100 micrometers.

According to the data gathered by Cassini, positively charged ions become the small, “light” plasma species and the negatively charged grains become the “heavy” components. The process is the opposite of “normal” plasmas, where the negative electrons are thousands of times lighter than the positive ions.

Scientists are hopeful that by studying the behavior of Saturn’s plasma environment and its interaction with the sun’s energy, they can understand how that environment is similar to and different from that of the Earth and other planets.

NASA launched the Cassini spacecraft in 1997 and its mission has been extended several times, most recently until 2017.

Scientists have used Cassini’s Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer instrument to learn more about the composition, density and variability of the plume from Enceladus.


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