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See Inside December 2008

Enceladus: Secrets of Saturn's Strangest Moon

Wrinkled landscapes and spouting jets on Saturn's sixth-largest moon hint at underground waters



Ron Miller

When the Voyager 2 spacecraft sped through the Saturnian system more than a quarter of a century ago, it came within 90,000 kilometers of the moon Enceladus. Over the course of a few hours, its cameras returned a handful of images that confounded planetary scientists for years. Even by the diverse standards of Saturn’s satellites, Enceladus was an outlier. Its icy surface was as white and bright as fresh snow, and whereas the other airless moons were heavily pocked with craters, Enceladus was mantled in places with extensive plains of smooth, uncratered terrain, a clear sign of past internally driven geologic activity. At just over 500 kilometers across, Enceladus seemed far too small to generate much heat on its own. Yet something unusual had clearly happened to this body to erase vast tracts of its cratering rec­ord so completely.

Voyager’s brief encounter allowed no more than a cursory look, and, in hindsight, its imaging coverage of Enceladus was terribly unfortunate: a few medium-resolution images of the northern hemisphere, some low-resolution coverage in the south, and none of the south pole. We had no idea what we had missed.

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