4 Apr 2014

Is there life in the oceans of Saturn’s icy moon?

They’ve suspected it for a while, but now scientists are convinced Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus is home to a vast ocean of salty water.

04_enceladus_NASA_w(Enceladus and its underground ocean. Image credit: NASA)

It makes it a prime candidate for harbouring life in our rather barren solar system. Enceladus could now become a target for experimental “penetrator” space probes like the one filmed in action by Channel 4 News last year (watch below).

Saturn has 62 moons. Most of them tiny – little more than large lumps of rock. But Enceladus has fascinated planetary scientists since the space probe Cassini flew past it in 2005 and photographed mysterious jets of gas emanating from crevices on the moon’s south pole.

04_enceladus_michaelcarroll_w Enceladus. Image credit: Michael Carroll

The early suspicion was that Enceladus, like Jupiter’s moon Europa, might harbour a liquid ocean of water under its ice-bound surface.

This latest study strongly hints that the jets may indeed be vaporizing water coming from a lake similar in size to Canada’s Lake Superior.

It’s presence was inferred by measuring the gravity field of the moon during subsequent Cassini fly-bys of Saturn.

So could there be life in Enceladus’ ocean? The water is likely to be liquid given tidal heating caused by the moon’s irregular orbit around Saturn. And many astrobiologists believe liquid water anywhere in the solar system could harbour life similar to bacteria here on Earth.

But proving it would be hard. Some scientists think a probe designed to fly through Enceladus’ vapour plumes could “sniff” for chemical signature’s of life.

But another approach could be to smash a “penetrator” space probe into the moon and sample the ice on the surface for hints of extra-terrestrial life.

Follow @TomClarkeC4 on Twitter.

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