Initial reports speculated that chambers of liquid water lay close to the moon’s surface and erupted in a giant geyser. The water would be near freezing, so scientists dubbed the model “Cold Faithful,” after the familiar, but hotter, Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone National Park.
“A problem with this model,” Kieffer said, “is that 10 percent of the plume consists of the gases carbon dioxide, nitrogen and methane. You might get a carbon dioxide-driven liquid geyser there, but you can’t put this much nitrogen and methane into liquid water at the low pressures found inside Enceladus.”
Nitrogen and methane are nearly insoluble in liquid water, but highly soluble in frozen water – in an ice phase called clathrate. When clathrate is exposed to a vacuum, the gas molecules burst out, ripping the ice lattice to shreds and carrying the fragments away.
Kieffer and colleagues have proposed an alternate model to explain the plume on Enceladus. The gases in the plume, they propose, are dissolved in a reservoir of clathrate under the water ice cap in the south polar region. The clathrate model allows an environment that would be 80 to 100 degrees Celsius colder than liquid water, with a “Frigid Faithful” plume emanating from clathrates, rather than from liquid water reservoirs.