Mankind has sent fancy robots and probes to a whole bunch of our nearest planetary neighbors and found nothing to suggest life exists (or ever existed) on them, but if you’ve given up hope that humanity would find extraterrestrial life in our very own Solar System, you might want to rethink that. A new study published in Nature used data gathered by the reliable Cassini spacecraft to gauge the possibility that life could be supported on Saturn’s icy ocean moon Enceladus. The verdict? It’s looking very, very good.
Enceladus is a massive ball of thick ice covering a salty water mixture and, scientists believe, a rocky core. Scientists are virtually certain that there is hydrothermal activity present deep within the planet, as massive plumes of water have been observed shooting out from between cracks in the ice, and the newest round of data reveals that this activity has been ongoing long enough that it may have spawned life.
The ice around Enceladus is incredibly thick, measuring many miles deep, but it’s thinner near the planet’s poles. Massive geysers have been spotted prominently in the south polar region, but the planet is thought to be completely covered in an ocean underneath its ice. With billions of years under its belt, and an ocean which ranges from frigid to steaming hot near its core, life as we know it may have had a very good chance at forming.
Prior research had failed to figure out how Enceladus had remained warm enough to support liquid water over such a long time period. It was thought that if radioactivity at its core was the engine that drove the planet, it would have fizzled out after a few million years, but that obviously didn’t happen, so scientists came up with a new theory that seems to fit the bill. A new computer model using a porous core structure, whereby heat from the planet’s core (powered by energy from its ocean tides) is pushed outward in a jet-like fashion.
Whether life ever did spring forth — and more importantly, if it’s still there, thriving underneath the incredibly thick layer of ice — is anyone’s guess. NASA has proposed missions to Enceladus in the past, but these so-called “Life Finder” efforts have not yet been set in stone.