Skip to main content

Could Enceladus, the icy moon of Saturn, be capable of supporting life?

New research using data from the Cassini probe suggests that Enceladus, the moon of Saturn with an ocean hidden beneath a thick layer of ice, could be capable of supporting life.

Cracks in the icy surface of the moon let out plumes of gases and sea spray, and data about these plumes can reveal more about the ocean beneath the ice. “By understanding the composition of the plume, we can learn about what the ocean is like, how it got to be this way and whether it provides environments where life as we know it could survive,” Dr. Christopher Glein of the Southwest Research Institute, lead author of the research, explained in a statement.

“We came up with a new technique for analyzing the plume composition to estimate the concentration of dissolved CO2 in the ocean. This enabled modeling to probe deeper interior processes.”

Saturn’s geologically active moon, Enceladus. NASA/JPL

The team found an abundance of carbon dioxide, likely created by chemical reactions on Enceladus’ ocean floor. In addition, there are thought to be hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor which vent hot fluids rich in minerals into the water, similar to those found on the ocean floor on Earth which could have been the starting point of life here.

The big shock of this finding is that it means Enceladus may be capable of supporting life. Although there is no evidence that life is there now, the conditions there could be conducive to the formation of simple lifeforms.

“The dynamic interface of a complex core and seawater could potentially create energy sources that might support life,” said Dr. Hunter Waite, principal investigator of Cassini’s Ion Neutral Mass Spectrometer, an instrument that collected data on the atmospheric composition of Saturn and its moons. “While we have not found evidence of the presence of microbial life in the ocean of Enceladus, the growing evidence for chemical disequilibrium offers a tantalizing hint that habitable conditions could exist beneath the moon’s icy crust.”

The research suggests that the rocky core of Enceladus is more complex than we realized, with what the scientists describe as “a carbonated upper layer and a serpentinized interior.” This core seems to be influencing the carbon dioxide in the ocean through chemical reactions, making the ice moon a hubbub of chemical activity.

“The implications for possible life enabled by a heterogeneous core structure are intriguing,” said Glein. “This model could explain how planetary differentiation and alteration processes create chemical (energy) gradients needed by subsurface life.”

Editors' Recommendations

Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
Infrared imaging reveals fresh ice on Saturn’s moon Enceladus
best cassini images 7

One of the prime locations to search for life beyond Earth in our solar system is Saturn's moon Enceladus, which is thought to have an ocean of liquid water beneath its icy crust. Now, a new map of the moon made using both visible light and infrared shows where regions of geological activity have deposited fresh ice onto its surface.

As Enceladus is covered in ice, it is one of the most reflective bodies in our solar system and normally looks like a bright white snowball. So to understand more about this intriguing moon, NASA analyzed data from its Cassini mission to Saturn which ended in 2017.

Read more
Our galaxy may be full of ocean worlds, some of which could support life
This illustration shows NASA's Cassini spacecraft flying through plumes on Enceladus in October 2015.

Planets with liquid oceans may be common in our galaxy, according to new research, enlarging the pool of potentially habitable exoplanets for us to explore.

Researchers from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the Planetary Science Institute, and the University of Idaho wanted to know whether any of the currently known exoplanets (numbering more than 4,200) could have oceans. However, these planets are too far away to be observable in detail. So they used information on the planets' sizes, masses, and distance from their stars to estimate their conditions.

Read more
See the surface of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa in unprecedented detail
image of an area called Crisscrossing Bands

Jupiter's icy moon Europa is a fascinating place and is of particular interest to astronomers for several reasons. It is known to host both water vapor and table salt, and has been suggested as being one of the locations in our solar system most likely to be hospitable to life thanks to its water-ice crust and a thin oxygen atmosphere.

NASA plans to send the Europa Clipper mission to the moon, launching in 2025, to search for subsurface lakes and evidence of recent water eruptions there. The European Space Agency's JUICE mission to Ganymede will also perform two flybys of Europa after it launches in 2022.

Read more