Astronaut Black Background



The largest, shining object in Earth's starlit night sky, our Moon has long been the source of mystery, myth, and poetry--a captivating inspiration for those who stare at the sky in wonder. But Earth's Moon is a very real object--the only body beyond our own planet that we have actually set foot upon, leaving our lingering footprints in its distant, alien dust. Earth's Moon has been with us almost from the very beginning, and even though it is our planet's closest companion in space, it has nonetheless managed to keep some of its ancient secrets very well. In September 2015, astronomers released a new study that shed light on Earth's bewitching companion's ancient and secretive past. Although our Moon now appears to be unchanging, as if it has always been exactly the same as it appears now--going through its beautiful and, yet, familiar phases, and controlling our ocean tides--in the distant past, things were actually very different. "Since time immemorial, humanity has looked up and wondered what made the man in the Moon. We know the dark splotches are large, lava-filled, impact basins that were created by asteroid impacts about four billion years ago. GRAIL data indicate that both the near side and the far side of the Moon were bombarded by similarly large impactors, but they reacted to them much differently," noted Dr. Maria Zuber, GRAIL principal investigator, in a November 7, 2013 NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Press Release. Dr. Zuber is of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The JPL is located in Pasadena, California. However, it was little Enceladus that gave astronomers their greatest shock. Even though the existence of Enceladus has been known since it was discovered by William Herschel in 1789, its enchantingly weird character was not fully appreciated until this century. Indeed, until the Voyagers flew past it, little was known about the moon. However, Enceladus has always been considered one of the more interesting members of Saturn's abundantly moonstruck family, for a number of very good reasons. First of all, it is amazingly bright. The quantity of sunlight that an object in our Solar System reflects back is termed its albedo, and this is calculated primarily by the color of the object's ground coating. The albedo of the dazzling Enceladus is almost a mirror-like 100%. Basically, this means that the surface of the little moon is richly covered with ice crystals--and that these crystals are regularly and frequently replenished. When the Voyagers flew over Enceladus in the 1980s, they found that the object was indeed abundantly coated with glittering ice. It was also being constantly, frequently repaved. Immense basins and valleys were filled with pristine white, fresh snow. Craters were cut in half--one side of the crater remaining a visible cavity pockmarking the moon's surface, and the other side completely buried in the bright, white snow. Remarkably, Enceladus circles Saturn within its so-called E ring, which is the widest of the planet's numerous rings. Just behind the moon is a readily-observed bulge within that ring, that astronomers determined was the result of the sparkling emission emanating from icy volcanoes (cryovolcanoes) that follow Enceladus wherever it wanders around its parent planet. The cryovolanoes studding Enceladus are responsible for the frequent repaving of its surface. In 2008, Cassini confirmed that the cryovolanic stream was composed of ordinary water, laced with carbon dioxide, potassium salts, carbon monoxide, and a plethora of other organic materials. Tidal squeezing, caused by Saturn and the nearby sister moons Dione and Tethys, keep the interior of Enceladus pleasantly warm, and its water in a liquid state--thus allowing the cryovolcanoes to keep spewing out their watery eruptions. The most enticing mystery, of course, is determining exactly how much water Enceladus holds. Is there merely a lake-sized body of water, or a sea, or a global ocean? The more water there is, the more it will circulate and churn--and the more Enceladus quivers and shakes, the more likely it is that it can brew up a bit of life.