The discovery of water vapour and ice particles erupting from Saturn’s moon Enceladus fuelled speculation that an internal ocean was the source1,2,3. Alternatively, the source might be ice warmed, melted or crushed by tectonic motions4. 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 salinity5. The low sodium content of escaping vapour, together with the small fraction of salt-bearing particles6, argues against a situation in which a near-surface geyser is fuelled by a salty ocean through cracks in the crust1. 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.

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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.

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  1. Laboratory for Atmospheric & Space Physics, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309, USA

    • Nicholas M. Schneider
  2. University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland 20771, USA

    • Matthew H. Burger
  3. Institute for Astronomy, University of Hawaii, Honolulu, Hawaii 96822, USA

    • Emily L. Schaller
  4. Geological & Planetary Sciences, Caltech, Pasadena, California 91125, USA

    • Michael E. Brown
  5. Engineering Physics, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia 22904, USA

    • Robert E. Johnson
  6. Hydrology & Water Resources, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona 85721, USA

    • Jeffrey S. Kargel
  7. Space & Atmospheric Physics, Imperial College, London SW7 2AZ, UK

    • Michele K. Dougherty
  8. Physics & Astronomy, University College, London WC1E 6BT, UK

    • Nicholas A. Achilleos


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Correspondence to Nicholas M. Schneider.

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