Saturn’s Moon Enceladus Could Support Life Under its Icy Crust
The Cassini spacecraft sent back data that suggests that under the icy crust, the moon of Enceladus could support life.
If you want to find evidence of life beyond Earth, you may not need to look much further than our solar system’s gas giants, specifically their moons.
On September 15, 2017, the Cassini spacecraft concluded its decades-long mission with a controlled dive into Saturn’s atmosphere. Including takeoff and time en route, the mission lasted about a month shy of 20 years, and remains one of the most successful space missions of all time. Among its many observations of Saturn (and a few of Jupiter as it passed by), it also sent back huge amounts of data on the moons surrounding the ringed planet.
In fact, it sent back so much data that NASA is just now able to release some of the findings following lengthy study. That has led to several announcements since the probe’s destruction, the most recent of which makes Saturn’s moon of Enceladus even more intriguing thanks to the discovery of complex organics.
Cassini previously discovered that beneath the icy crust of Enceladus there was a hidden ocean. A closer look confirmed that the ocean contained some common organic materials, which were being shot into the atmosphere due to ice plumes. The Jovian moon of Ganymede also seems to be hiding a full ocean, but the latest discovery from Cassini may have made Saturn’s moon a more tantalizing prospect for future exploration.
The recent announcement comes from Frank Postberg and Nozair Khawaja of Germany’s University of Heidberg. The duo managed to identify that molecules identified by Cassini are actually complex organic materials, which means Cassini may be capable of hosting some form of life under the ice.
It’s probably not going to be a good vacation spot anytime soon given that the temperature on the surface is – 324º F, but the liquid is warmer – much warmer. Given the geologic activity on the planet, the ocean may reach temperatures as warm as 190º F. The moon is also small, only about one-fifth the size of Earth’s moon.
The working theory is that bubbles in the salty water rise through miles of oceans until they reach the surface of the ocean, where they then form a thin film under the ice. When the film comes into contact with a crack and vents, it sends materials through miles of ice and high above the surface.
The discovery of these complex organic materials doesn’t absolutely confirm that the moon is capable of creating the situation necessary for life – it’s also possible that the materials were deposited on the moon due to a passing asteroid that crashed into it – but there’s more than enough to intrigue scientists.
Cassini was a joint project between NASA and the European Space Agency. A future joint mission is planned to both Enceladus and the neighboring moon of Titan, called the Explorer of Enceladus and Titan (E²T), although it has yet to be approved. Until it is (and even beyond), scientists will continue to pore through the data from the Cassini probe.