A new report from NASA’s spacecraft Cassini has revealed that Saturn’s sixth largest moon, Enceladus, may have signs of life. The exciting discovery confirms that the moon has traces of an underground ocean. Scientists believe that the underground ocean might be as large or even larger than Lake Superior, however, this underground lake has a deep layer of ice over it.
This discovery confirms earlier signs that scientist found about Saturn’s moon having liquid water. David Stevenson is a professor of planetary science at the California Institute of Technology and co-author of the study of Saturn. Stevenson describes the ocean as a lens-shaped reservoir that is deeper on one side and thin on the other. Stevenson says that the lake is sitting on top of a rocky core. The moon is small, measuring at only 310 miles across. The north Pole of the moon has the thickest layer of ice, which is about 30 miles deep, and the south Pole has a layer of ice that is only 18 to 24 miles deep. Under this layer of ice, the underground ocean is only 5 to 10 miles deep.
The Saturn moon, Enceladus, is not the only moon that has an underground ocean, and may not be the only moon that shows signs of life. Saturn’s other moon, Titan, and Jupiter’s moons Ganymede, Europa, and Callisto each contain water. Jonathan Lunine is also a co-author of the study. Lunine says that he considers these moons as examples, which show there are a lot of places in the outer solar system that may be habitable environments.
The spacecraft Cassini has been exploring Saturn and its rings for the past 17 years. In 2005, Cassini was able to detect a gushing of water vapor coming up from Enceladus’s south pole, from the underground ocean. This water vapor was found to contain salt particles. Even though Cassini detected the underground ocean, it has very limited instruments, so it cannot determine if there are more signs of life on the small moon. Another mission, with more up to date and sophisticated equipment must be made to expand on these findings.
Scientists are not able to determine the temperature of the underground ocean, but they assume it was once warm enough to allow life to form because of the circulation of water coming from the core. The presence of salt in the water would react like antifreeze, and keep the lake from being completely frozen, says Lunine.
The discovery of the Saturn moon Enceladus having an underground ocean and the possibility of showing signs of life is very exciting to scientists. Carolyn Porco is the leader of Cassini’s imaging team and believes that this small moon is now the front-runner to be studied. Even though the layer of ice is very thick, a special spacecraft could be flown through the fractures in the surface, which has the water vapor rising from the underground ocean, and test for an advanced biological system. Porco believes that the Saturn’s small moon is the most accessible place to study the possibility of other life forms and it being an extraterrestrial habitable zone.
Opinion By Sara Petersen