New Evidence of Hospitable Conditions for Life on Saturn's Moons

By Eliza Strickland | December 16, 2008 8:48 am

EnceladusThe space probe Cassini, our emissary to Saturn and its fascinating satellites, has made several new discoveries that lend further credence to the idea that microbial life could evolve on the icy moon Enceladus or the moon Titan, with its lakes of methane. During a flyby of Enceladus Cassini snapped pictures of the moon’s surface and the cracks in its icy crust from which jets of water vapor routinely burst upward. The new pictures suggest that the cracks form when the crust splits and spreads apart in a way that is similar to the mid-ocean ridges central to the tectonic system on our own planet. On Earth the spreading of the sea floor is driven by molten rock; Nasa scientists speculate that the liquid beneath the south pole of Enceladus may be water. “Bit by bit, we’re accumulating the evidence that there is liquid water on Enceladus” [Telegraph], said Cassini scientist Carolyn Porco.

Enceladus is already known to have some of the fundamental chemistry required to make and sustain life. Liquid water currently is the major missing ingredient. Dr Porco commented: “We first discovered this region in early 2005 and now it’s nearly four years later, so it’s still kind of brand new; but already there are some of us who really want to go back with a spacecraft that focuses on the south pole of Enceladus and investigates whether or not it is a site of either pre-biotic or biotic processes” [BBC News].

The findings regarding Enceladus were announced at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union, where researchers also revealed new results from Cassini’s flyby of Titan, a strange little moon which is one of the few bodies in the solar system with a significant atmosphere. Researchers have proposed that methane in the atmosphere forms clouds that then rain liquid methane down onto the surface, but the source of the methane has been uncertain. Now, the new data from Cassini backs up a theory that Titan’s surface occasionally erupts with “ice volcanoes,” which spew a super-chilled mix of ammonia, methane, and water into the air. The latest data “not only indicate that cryovolcanism has been going on on Titan in the recent geologic past, but might even be going on on Titan today,” said Cassini scientist Jonathan Lunine [AP].

Finally, a photo from the Huygens probe that landed on Titan in 2005 revealed a dew drop of methane that condensed on the probe’s metal surface, which researchers are calling the first drop of liquid to ever be directly observed on an extraterrestrial body. While the photo gives researchers a gratifying confirmation of their theories, the presence of liquids isn’t a surprise. The Cassini space probe, which took data from above the moon after separating from the Huygens lander, detected what scientists believe are lakes of liquid methane on Titan’s surface. Microbes that eat methane thrive on Earth, and scientists think pools of methane could be comfortable homes for similar organisms on Titan [Wired News].

Related Content:
Bad Astronomy: Enceladus! has more on the latest photos and findings
80beats: Geysers From Saturn’s Moon May Indicate Liquid Lakes, and a Chance for Life
80beats: Hydrocarbon Lake on Saturnian Moon May Be a Hotspot for Alien Life

Image: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

  • Larian LeQuella

    First BA, now you. :) Enceladus sure is a popular subject. By the way, here is an interesting article to add to the mix: Particularly the discussion on the “sweet spot” for life.

  • nick

    There may be non-microbial life on titan as well – there’s no reason life couldn’t have formed to higher levels there, after all the moon’s been around quite a long time.

    However, it would be difficult to detect because the freezing temperatures would probably dictate that life there was rather slow moving. We’ve found microbes on earth with natural antifreeze (alcohol) inside of them, there’s no reason that life couldn’t have developed further if the conditions it lived under were more wide-spread.

    We’ve found life almost everyone on earth we’ve gone, including the places scientists were like “nahh, you wont find anything there.”

    But the only thing I can say with absolute certainty is that this universe is full of surprises, and we’ve barely scratched the surface of one planet. If you want to make one of those grains of sand on the beach analogies, it’s like studying one silica atom and claiming you’ve discovered anything but the tiniest little thing about sand and the beach, in relation to studying life on earth and claiming we know much at all about how life may exist.

  • Eliza Strickland

    I definitely agree that life turns up in the strangest places, Nick.

    My favorite recent example was a bacteria that was discovered almost 2 miles below ground in a goldmine. In fissures filled with dark, hot, pressurized water the researchers found that one single type of organism was living there, completely independent of any other form of life. It survives because radiation from uranium in the surrounding rocks splits water molecules, and the oxygen reacts with iron sulfide minerals to create iron sulfate that the bacteria chow down on. No elaborate ecosystem or food web for this bacteria, just rocks and darkness.

  • Rick Dickson

    Don’t forget Europa as well. This Jovan moon has got a planet-wide subsurface ocean, which may be warmer and more active than we originally thought due to tidal heating effects with Jupiter. There are also organic molecules present on Europa as well. In fact when you look at detailed photos of Europa’s surface, you see dark stained areas in the cracks on the moon’s frozen surface. Are these organic molecules or possibly even dead microbes/algae brought up from the ocean below? Perhaps we need not send a probe down below Europa’s icy surface to search for life, but merely have it study the stained areas in one of Europa’s surface ice fractures.

  • Jonsey

    i pooped mi pantelones! :)

  • Glenn

    Well, these UFO’S are coming from somwhere or they were already here. But as far as humans being totally native to this planet, that is qestionable. My personal hypothessis on this whole subject is that humans are a hybrid between these E.T.’s and primates, an experiment gone horribly awry and we will all most certainly be annilated either by them or ourselves before we ever make it to another life sustainable planet. The ancient peoples of so many different cultures were aware of these E.T.’s and apparrently learned from them. Unfortunenately mankind has become so narsaccistic and uppity that we seem to think we are the only intelligence in the whole vast universe. Arragont fools will be humbled someday. For some reason this all seems very common sense to me. As far as the miniscule if any life on other planets or moons, maybe ; but we need to focus on whats going on right here before were prepared to deal with any one that may be out there.

  • Glenn

    With all that being said, I peronally feel like a littl bitty ant in an ant farm that some adolelecsent E.T. IS GLARING IN AMUSEMENT AND WONDER OVER. LOL.


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