Enceladus, the frozen moon of Saturn, is a pretty inhospitable place at first glance. Covered in ice and impact craters, it would be hard to call it anything but bleak. But, trapped beneath the miles of ice could be life, thriving in a network of vast underground oceans.
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft managed to discover evidence that chemical reactions are happening deep beneath the icy surface, which could be creating an environment capable of supporting microbial life. Even though the water is trapped many miles beneath the surface, a number of watery plumes regularly shoot up into the atmosphere through cracks in the ice. This led NASA to send the Cassini probe to literally dive through one of these plumes, which led to the discovery of both hydrogen and carbon dioxide being present in the water.
In their report via Science, NASA reports that the “only plausible” source for the hydrogen would be chemical reactions between the warm water and rocks on the ocean floor. This is exciting because hydrogen can mix with carbon dioxide to form methane, which is consumed by microbes on our own ocean floors.
In a statement by Professor Hunter White, who is the Principal Investigator for Cassini’s Mass Spectrometer instrument, he said that:
“Saturn’s moon Enceladus has an ice-covered ocean, and a plume of material erupts from cracks in the ice. The plume contains chemical signatures of water-rock interaction between the ocean and a rocky core. We find that the most plausible source of this hydrogen is ongoing hydrothermal reactions of rock containing reduced minerals and organic materials.
“On the modern Earth, geochemically derived fuels such as hydrogen support thriving ecosystems even in the absence of sunlight.”
Enceladus, which is the sixth-largest moon of Saturn, has long been suspected of housing liquid water due to the extreme tidal forces caused by Saturn’s gravity. In 2005 NASA launched the Cassini probe to explore Saturn and its moons, and they soon discovered that Enceladus actually wobbled slightly when completing its orbit. This could only happen if the planet wasn’t frozen to its interior, leading to the belief that an icy ocean existed below.
Since then researchers have been studying data from the Cassini probe, and this latest evidence is the strongest yet that the moon may harbor life.
Images: NASA, Wikimedia