Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons, has always been known to be home of a considerable amount of water, however up until recently it was suspected that most of that water was frozen on the surface, incapable of sustaining life. Despite its small size, Enceladus is now suspected of housing a lake the size of Lake Superior, a rather large discovery in the stellar community and a sign of potential life on the small frozen sphere.
Events Leading to Discovery
In 2005, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft began approaching Enceladus to gather in part more information on the moon, which had recently been photographed having large frozen water areas. When the spacecraft’s camera got within range, NASA was able to not only confirm the existence of frozen water on the surface, but managed to capture images of water jetting from the southern pole.
Continuing to study, the mission was slightly altered to provide a close approach to the moon, close enough to measure gravitational pull on the craft, a technique that can shed considerable light on the density of a satellite body. Leading-up to the flyby, it was assumed by many that the small orb would be dense, as everything up until then had indicated that the moon made of rock and metals, with an icy outer shell.
While flying by and measuring the gravitational pull, however, researches were stunned to find the gravitational pull to be significantly less than they had anticipated, meaning that the mass of the object was also smaller. Considering the watery jets they witnessed earlier, and this new gravitational data they received, they have come to the conclusion that under that icy surface is a rather large ocean.
What this Could Mean
The simple ramification of this discovery of a water body under the surface of Enceladus is rather straight-forward: that there is, in fact, liquid water on the planet. However, when you begin to consider what water can be a sign of in nature, the information is staggering. One of the key things we’re looking for in establishing whether extraterrestrial life exists is water; it’s the one constant that all nature requires for sustaining life. In that water, something that can’t be discovered until future missions go down and examine it, could house other components needed for life.
Now, this is far from saying that there is life on Enceladus. NASA doesn’t make that assertion for anywhere in the galaxy other than Earth, but for locations where evidence shows life may be possible, locations that are habitable for life, this small moon took a major move towards the top. Some experts assert that the likelihood of life on Enceladus is now a higher probability than on Mars, a location that we have been studying for such signs for years. Mars is still, of course, being looked into for past life, but one key difference is that scientists say that Enceladus could not only have been the past home of life, but could possibly house life right now
Whether life is discovered or not, it’s certain that Enceladus has more secrets for us to discover, and future missions to explore the moon are desperately needed. This is a topic that should provide insight not only into our own planet, but perhaps show that we are not the only inhabitants of this solar system.
Sources used in this article:
-Under Icy Surface of a Saturn Moon Lies a Sea of Water, Scientists Say – New York Times – Kenneth Chang – April 3rd, 2014
-The Gravity Field and Interior Structure of Enceladus – American Association for the Advancement of Science – L. Less – April 4th, 2014
-Saturn Moon Has Geysers, Hinting Life Is a Possiblity – New York Times – Kenneth Chang – March 10th, 2006