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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.”

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