Monday, March 16, 2015

Cassini Spacecraft Notes Saturn Moon May Support Life In Its Subsurface Ocean

Andrew Coates at Juan Cole's Informed Comment:

Saturn’s moon Enceladus has an Ocean, Geysers and maybe Life

The Cassini mission that has investigated Saturn since 2004 has revealed much about the giant planet and its many moons. Perhaps most tantalising is the discovery that the moon Enceladus is the source of strong geysers ejecting plumes of water and ice.

A new study of Cassini data published in Nature by Hsiang-Wen Hsu and colleagues reveals these plumes are laced with grains of sand. This indicates that hydrothermal activity may be at work in Enceladus’ sub-surface ocean, and propels this tiny moon into the extremely exclusive club of locations that could harbour life.

The club’s only current member is Earth, of course – although it’s very possible that Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, is, like Enceladus, also a candidate. What they have in common is that they host liquid oceans of salty water that exists in contact with a rocky, silicate seabed from which the oceans can absorb complex minerals and elements.


Cool! There's still no certainty, but as recently as a decade ago, I'd have put my money on "Earth alone" as the home of life in our Solar System. Now we have several possibilities. Enceladus was discovered in 1789 by William Herschel; between that long history and the Cassini mission, there is basis for some credible speculation about how it works, subsurface ocean and all. Here's a diagram of one of the models of its cryovolcanism (click for larger image):

Even if this tiny moon doesn't support life, its name could serve to advise you what to order if it's your very first trip to a Mexican restaurant...

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