NASA scientists were shocked to learn that Enceladus is covered in active geysers, but does this mean that life exists on the tiny Saturn moon?
When NASA’s Cassini space probe dove down towards Saturn’s strange moon Enceladus, scientists weren’t remotely ready for what they saw. According to a report from the LA Times, Cassini recently sent back a collection of photos showing ghostly ice geysers erupting into space from the surface of Enceladus, spurring questions of the possibility of life on the distant moon.
Cassini briefly dove deep into the atmosphere on Enceladus, passing through clouds of water droplets, organic molecules, and other compounds. Scientists calculated that the spacecraft would drop into the plume of ice and gas at a speed of 19,000 miles per hour, for a total of just 10 seconds.
In addition to the stunning images of the bizarre world, Cassini captured data about the moon’s chemical composition as well. By taking samples of the gas and dust surrounding the moon, researchers will gain insight into whether or not the ingredients necessary to support life could exist this far out in the solar system.
According to Linda Spilker, the lead Cassini scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the mission sought to confirm that there was hydrogen present in the gas plume. This would prove that the inside of Enceladus is hydrothermally active, not unlike the deep-sea vents that emit heat from the center of the Earth. These vents can support entire ecosystems at the bottom of Earth’s oceans, and if Cassini can confirm hydrothermal activity on Enceladus, scientists think there is a reasonable chance that life could exist there.
Cassini has come closer to Enceladus than on its previous dive, but this was the farthest it has ventured into the massive geyser. Researchers have already confirmed the presence of methane, but the recent descent will likely reveal a wide range of other organic compounds. Spilker is particularly confident that the mission will confirm the presence of heavier organics.
Cassini will also examine the slits at the south pole of Enceladus to determine just how long the moon has been active. These slits form a “tiger stripe” pattern and emit a curtain of gas along a significant portion of the moon.
Enceladus is a small moon, measuring just 300 miles in diameter. Despite its size, it is one of the few bodies in our solar system known to have water present. According to Curt Niebur, a program scientist with the Cassini mission in Washington, DC, the conditions on Enceladus suggest that it is well-within the realm of possibility for life to have arisen in places other than Earth within our solar system. While Cassini isn’t fully equipped with the instruments necessary for detecting actual signs of life, what it has told us about Enceladus’ environment offers a solid starting point.
A press release from NASA outlining the descent and future Cassini missions can be found here.