NASA announcement confirms ocean under Enceladus could harbour life

13 Apr 2017

Stunning image of Enceladus captured by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Image: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

A press conference held by NASA has confirmed the existence of a vast ocean beneath the surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

Much anticipation has been building towards the announcement made by NASA today (13 April) regarding the discovery of oceans outside of Earth – the first time one could be confirmed.

With the veil of secrecy now lifted, it was revealed that the discovery was not just in our universe, but right in our own solar system.

As we suggested in our article preceding this announcement, the inclusion of Hunter Waite, the leader of the Cassini Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer team at the Southwest Research Institute in Texas, was notable.

In 2008, Waite was a principal investigator on a project that found organic material erupting from the moon, which contained hot water vapour.

Now, in a paper published to the journal Science, Waite and his fellow researchers have ruled out all possibilities for this activity but one: the existence of hydrothermal reactions within a vast subsurface ocean.

The Cassini probe detected the presence of molecular hydrogen in the plume vapour of the eruption at Enceladus’s southern polar region, which could only have been created by hydrothermal reactions between hot rocks and water in the ocean beneath the moon’s icy surface.

Life, but as we know it

This not only makes it an incredible find in the field of astrophysics, but also within the exciting field of astrobiology.

By looking at the same hydrothermal environments found on Earth, astrobiologists can infer that they too could provide energy for ecosystems that thrive in the most hostile of regions.

Based on the analysis of the plumes obtained by Cassini, the vapour contained up to 1.4 volume per cent hydrogen and up to 0.8 volume per cent carbon dioxide.

Both of these are critical ingredients for a process known as methanogenesis, a reaction that sustains microbes in deep, dark undersea environments on Earth.

Speaking prior to the announcement, Jeffrey Seewald of the Schmidt Ocean Institute said: “Waite et al’s results represent an important advance in assessing the habitability of Enceladus.”

With this new information, astrobiologists can now begin focusing their attention on the moon in the hope of sending a probe that could one day examine the ocean in unprecedented detail, and possibly find signs of life.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic