NASA published a press release on Thursday, March 12th, highlighting that the Cassini spacecraft has provided the first definitive evidence that Saturn’s moon Enceladus shows signs of current hydrothermal activity similar to that found in the deep oceans of Earth. Scientists say this kind of heating activity significantly increases the possibility of harboring life.
Statement from NASA administrator and former astronaut on Enceladus
“These findings add to the possibility that Enceladus, which contains a subsurface ocean and displays remarkable geologic activity, could contain environments suitable for living organisms,” noted John Grunsfeld astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “The locations in our solar system where extreme environments occur in which life might exist may bring us closer to answering the question: are we alone in the Universe.”
Analyzing water vapor
The analysis of minerals in the water vapor scanned during flybys of Enceladus during the Cassini mission discovered microscopic grains of silica suspended in the water particles. This means that hot water at a temperature of at least 194 degrees F containing dissolved minerals from the moon’s core has been forced through cooler layers of water. The microscopic silica grains form during this process.
Hydrothermal vents on the ocean floors of Earth are rife with chemical reactions, and frequently provide an energy resource for marine life. The various lifeforms found at the bottom of oceans usually do not require sunlight because they have evolved next to these hydrothermal vents and use them for energy.
Methane in water vapor further confirms hydrothermal activity
The NASA article also highlights another recent paper in the Geophysical Research Letters where researchers examining the relative abundance of methane in Enceladus’ plumes also point to hydrothermal activity.
“We didn’t expect that our study of clathrates in the Enceladus ocean would lead us to the idea that methane is actively being produced by hydrothermal processes,” commented Alexis Bouquet, a grad student at the University of Texas at San Antonio and lead author of the paper.