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The possibility of alien life on Saturn’s moon Enceladus just got much more realistic

Published Jun 28th, 2018 12:45PM EDT
enceladus life
Image: NASA

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Scientists continue to peer deeper into the galaxy in the search for exoplanets that may host alien life, but our best chance of finding extraterrestrial life might actually be right here in our own Solar System. A new study based on data collected by NASA’s Cassini orbiter is providing some tantalizing clues as to what is hiding beneath the thick ice sheets on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, and it’s incredibly exciting.

The study, which was published in Nature, reveals the presence of complex organic compounds within the planet’s vast ocean, and while it’s not definitive proof that life exists deep within the moon, it’s a massive step towards that potential discovery.

Enceladus is incredibly special. It’s tiny orb, much smaller than the Earth, but it’s covered in a thick sheet of ice that encases a massive ocean of liquid water. We know this because of the large fissures that exist near its poles, particularly near the moon’s southern end, where water sprays out into space from between the cracks. Deep within the planet, the water is warm, and that’s a pretty big deal when it comes to searching for life.

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft snatched a sample of those particles during its mission, and this new research is based upon the data that it sent back. Scientists now say that the water contained carbon-rich material, suggesting some pretty complex organic processes happening near the center of the moon. This makes Enceladus the only other body in the known universe with all the prerequisites for life, as far as we understand it.

Researchers have long hypothesized that superheated hydrothermal vents exist near a rocky core at the center of Enceladus, creating the pressure that ultimate creates the massive plumes of water that spew out into space. These new findings support that theory, and since we already know that organisms can survive off of the energy of such vents in Earth’s oceans, in the absence of sunlight, it’s entirely possible that the same may be happening inside of Saturn’s icy moon.

In order to actually detect the presence of life deep within the moon, we’re going to need to make a trip to Enceladus. At the moment, no missions have been greenlit, but several scientific bodies are working towards that goal. Late last year, a Russian billionaire decided he wanted to fund a trip to Saturn’s moon in order to take additional samples of the water being shot out into space, but confirming the presence of life — and explaining what it looks like and how it functions — is going to require a more sophisticated approach that, for the moment, is still just a dream.