Top Contender for Life Outside Earth: a Saturn Moon

Enceladus has a warm ocean, hydrothermal activity
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 12, 2015 2:42 PM CDT
Top Contender for Life Outside Earth: a Saturn Moon
This 2009 image taken by the Cassini spacecraft shows Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons.   (AP Photo/NASA)

Thanks to the Cassini spacecraft, we already knew that one of Saturn's moons has a big ocean. Now things have gotten more interesting on Enceladus. It turns out that the ocean is not only warm, it seems to have the same kind of hydrothermal activity going on as oceans on Earth, reports NASA. Bottom line: "This may be the place to go look for life in the outer solar system," says a Cornell scientist not involved with the new study in Nature. That would be microbial life, under conditions similar to those in a network of hot springs under the Atlantic Ocean known as the "Lost City," reports AP. Some scientists think that ancient hydrothermal field yielded the first life on our planet.

Some extra-terrestrial sleuthing resulted in the Enceladus discovery: Knowing that a geyser shooting up from the moon's south pole sends up dust particles that settle on Saturn's outer ring, researchers analyzed the outer ring. They discovered that the dust particles were mostly silica, explains Popular Mechanics, and the makeup of that silica yielded details about the ocean in which they were formed. "We think that the temperature at least in some part of the ocean must be higher than 190 degrees Fahrenheit," team member Sean Hsu tells NPR. "If you could swim a little bit further from the really hot part then it could be comfy." The only way to "nail the habitability question" is to send up a new spacecraft to Enceladus with more modern instruments, says the Cornell researcher. He's already working on the proposal. (Read about how Pluto might rejoin the planet club.)

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