October 30, 2015 § 1 Comment
Water. Over 60% of our bodies consist of it. Without it, we can barely survive for a week. And under certain conditions, that number decreases drastically.
In space, water is potential. Water signifies the possibility of life. Even if it does not necessarily support life on its own, it gives us hope that we may be able to venture out to some distant place and survive there. So the prospect of water in space is exciting. No wonder we spend so much time looking for it.
Cassini-Huygens, a joint project between NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency, was launched in 1997. It made its way to Saturn, arriving there and establishing orbit in 2004. In 2005 it made its first flyby of Enceladus, the sixth largest moon of Saturn. The images captured intrigued scientists. Enceladus shot up to one of the solar system bodies of greatest interest. What scientists saw, or they thought they saw (there was a lot of background noise) were icy plumes coming up from the southern pole of the moon. The question was: is it water?
Subsequent flybys yielded information that allowed scientists to announce strong evidence for a regional sea in 2014. In September 2015 new gravity data turned this regional sea into a global ocean. Scientists believe that Enceladus’s wobble as it orbits Saturn can only be accounted for by the presence of a such a body of water.
Just two days ago, Cassini made a historic flyby, just 30 miles off the south pole of Enceladus. It’s the probe’s deepest dive into the icy plume. Besides taking some great photographs, the probe collected a droplet of water. That drop is now being analyzed, with scientists interested in finding indication of molecular hydrogen. Such a find would confirm a geothermal energy source on the moon’s surface. The amount of molecular hydrogen detected will reveal the scope of geothermal activity.
So what now? Well, the the collected information will take months to process. A final flyby will occur on December 19th, during which Cassini will measure the amount of heat radiating from the moon’s interior.
While Cassini does not have the capability to detect life, the amount of geothermal activity will provide insights into how habitable the oceans really are. Enceladus may be one of the most likely candidates to host microbial life in the solar system. It would be something akin to certain types of microbial life present on Earth. These life forms feed off of chemical reactions between rocks, as well as radioactive decay.
The life we might find on Enceladus may not be intelligent, but, ladies and gentlemen, this could be first contact.