A redetermination of the ice/vapor ratio of Enceladus' plumes: Implications for sublimation and the lack of a liquid water reservoir

Susan W. Kieffer, Xinli Lu, Greg McFarquhar, Kenneth H. Wohletz

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The discovery of plumes of H2O vapor and ice particles erupting from the south pole of Enceladus, the tiny frigid satellite of Saturn, sparked controversy over whether these plumes are produced by boiling, or by sublimation with subsequent recondensation of the sublimated vapor [Porco, C.C., Helfenstein, P., Thomas, P.C., Ingersoll, A.P., Wisdom, J., West, R., Neukum, G., Denk, T., Wagner, R., Roatsch, T., Kieffer, S., Turtle, E., McEwen, A., Johnson, T.V., Rathbun, J., Veverka, J., Wilson, D., Perry, J., Spitale, J., Brahic, A., Burns, J.A., DelGenio, A.D., Dones, L., Murray, C.D., Squyres, S., 2006. Science 311, 1393-1401]. Porco et al.'s analysis that the masses of ice (I) and vapor (V) in the plume were comparable was taken to argue against the occurrence of sublimation and recondensation, leading to the hypothesis that the reservoir was boiling water, possibly as close as 7 m to the surface. Thus, it has been advocated that Enceladus should be a target for astrobiology exploration. Here we show, with recalculations using the original data and methodologies, as well as with new sensitivity studies, that the mass of ice in the column is significantly less than the mass of water vapor, and that by considering three additional effects, I/V is likely to be <0.2-0.1. This means that the plume is dominated by vapor that the thermodynamics permits to be easily produced by sublimation with recondensation. The low I/V ratio provides no compelling criterion for consideration of a liquid water reservoir. The uncertainties on the I/V ratio have not previously been discussed in the literature. Although the I/V ratio is sensitive to particle sizes and size distributions, the masses of ice (I) and vapor (V) are not comparable in any scenario constrained by available observations. We thus discuss the implications of sublimation from a thermodynamic point of view in a context that has not been presented previously. Constraints on I/V ratio from future spacecraft measurements of the plume, in conjunction with consideration of the total plume composition and multicomponent analysis, can help constrain source conditions for the plume. Crown

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)238-241
Number of pages4
Issue number1
StatePublished - Sep 2009


  • Enceladus
  • Ices

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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