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Published June 25, 2009 | Supplemental Material
Journal Article Open

No sodium in the vapour plumes of Enceladus


The discovery of water vapour and ice particles erupting from Saturn's moon Enceladus fuelled speculation that an internal ocean was the source. Alternatively, the source might be ice warmed, melted or crushed by tectonic motions. Sodium chloride (that is, salt) is expected to be present in a long-lived ocean in contact with a rocky core. Here we report a ground-based spectroscopic search for atomic sodium near Enceladus that places an upper limit on the mixing ratio in the vapour plumes orders of magnitude below the expected ocean salinity. The low sodium content of escaping vapour, together with the small fraction of salt-bearing particles, argues against a situation in which a near-surface geyser is fuelled by a salty ocean through cracks in the crust. The lack of observable sodium in the vapour is consistent with a wide variety of alternative eruption sources, including a deep ocean6, a freshwater reservoir, or ice. The existing data may be insufficient to distinguish between these hypotheses.

Additional Information

© 2009 Nature Publishing Group. Received 24 October 2008; Accepted 8 April 2009. Some of the data presented here were obtained at the W.M. Keck Observatory, which is operated as a scientific partnership among the California Institute of Technology, the University of California and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Observatory was made possible by the financial support of the W.M. Keck Foundation. We also acknowledge the Anglo-Australian Telescope and its staff. This work was supported by the National Science Foundation's Planetary Astronomy Program and the NASA Postdoctoral Program. This paper has benefited from discussions with M. Zolotov, J. Spencer, C. Porco, T. Johnson, A. Ingersoll, W. McKinnon, C. Mackay, F. Postberg, J. Schmidt, S. Kempf and R. Pappalardo. Supplementary information accompanies this paper.

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