Scientists looking for life on Saturn’s moon Enceladus
Enceladus, Saturn’s sixth largest moon, is increasingly being recognized by scientists as the most promising place in the Solar System to search for life.
The brilliant white moon, which is about the size of England, has a global ocean of salty, liquid water below its frozen surface that this has existed for billions of years — plenty of time for life to emerge. Furthermore, the presence of hydrothermal activity and organic materials may provide the warmth and materials needed for organisms, as we understand them, to evolve.
Carolyn Porco, one of the world’s foremost planetary scientists, is among those who thinks Enceladus should be our top priority in the search for extraterrestrial life. Speaking at the 2018 Breakthrough Discuss conference at Stanford University on Thursday, she outlined why Enceladus is so promising and how we could go about finding life there.
Porco has long been at the forefront of research into the moon. In the mid-2000s, for example, her team was responsible for sighting huge plumes of water vapor erupting from fractures on the surface of Enceladus’ south polar region.
Furthermore, “there’s a process that happens on every natural body on the Earth called ‘bubble scrubbing’, whereby organic materials and organisms, which are very hydrophobic, attach to bubbles as they rise through the water column,” she said. “At the surface the bubbles break, they release their spray and that’s what we think we’re seeing on Enceladus.”
But what kind of spacecraft would be most effective at finding life on Enceladus? According to Porco, a roving vehicle would not be useful because of the moon’s rocky terrain, which is filled with huge blocks of ice. There’s also no atmosphere, so using a drone would not be possible.