Saturn’s Death Star Moon may have vast underwater oceans

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This NASA image from Feb. 13, 2010, shows Saturn’s Moon Mimas with its large Herschel Crater. The Cassini spacecraft captured the image. The crater measures 130 kilometers (80miles) in diameter. Astronomers report the best evidence to date of a vast ocean, relatively young, beneath the icy surface of Mimas. It is believed that the ocean is between 5 million and15 million years old. The findings were published in the journal Nature on Wednesday, February 7, 2024. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute via AP

Astronomers found the best evidence to date that a vast ocean is present beneath the icy surface of Saturn’s Death Star-like mini moon.

The French-led group analyzed changes in Mimas’ orbit and rotated and reported Wednesday that it was more likely to have a hidden ocean between 12 and 18 miles (20 and 30 kilometers) under the frozen crust than an elongated, rocky core. The scientists based the findings on observations made by NASA’s Cassini satellite, which observed Saturn’s more than 140 moons over a period of more than a year before burning up in 2017.

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

“Mimas was probably the most unlikely place to look for a global ocean—and liquid water more generally,” co-author Valery Lainey of the Paris Observatory said in an email. “So that appears to be a habitable planet. But nobody knows exactly how long it will take for life to appear.

The results are published in the journal Nature.

Lainey claims that the oceans fill about half of Mimas. It represents only 1,2%-1,4% of Earth’s oceans due to the moon’s small size. Despite being so small, Mimas boasts the second largest impact crater of any moon in the solar system—the reason it’s compared to the fictional Death Star space station in “Star Wars.”

Alyssa Rhoden and Matija Cuk of the SETI Institute wrote in a corresponding editorial that “the idea that relatively small, frozen moons could harbor young oceans” was inspiring. They were not involved in the study.

Lainey believes that this subterranean sea, which is between 5 and 15 million years old and too young to have marked the surface of the moon, would have a temperature around freezing. He said that at the seafloor the water temperature may be much warmer.

Nick Cooper, co-author at Queen Mary University of London, said that the existence of an “incredibly young” ocean of water liquid makes Mimas the ideal candidate to study the origin of life.

Mimas, named by William Herschel in 1789 for a Greek mythological giant, was discovered by an English astronomer in 1789.

More information
Valery Lainey: A newly formed ocean inside Saturn’s Moon Mimas Nature (2024). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-023-06975-9.

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Saturn’s Death Star Moon may have a vast underground ocean (2024 February 11)
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