Hydrothermal conditions on Enceladus spark hope for presence of alien life

Scientists shed light on how Saturn's moon Enceladus gets the sustained power to stay geologically active.
By Jackie Flores | Nov 08, 2017
Saturn's icy moon Enceladus has a warm liquid ocean that makes it especially intriguing to scientists looking for extraterrestrial life.

Now, a new study suggests that the moon's wet gravelly core creates enough tidal friction to keep the ocean liquid for billions of years.

The study appears Nov. 6 in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Scientists from the University of Nantes looked at observations from the now-defunct Cassini spacecraft, which studied Saturn and its moons for 13 years.

"What we have in mind is not a sponge like porosity, it's more like a pile of sand or gravel," said co-author Gal Choblet, in a report by Popular Mechanics.

When Cassini detected giant geysers shooting hundreds of miles into space from Enceladus' south pole, scientists eventually concluded that a massive liquid ocean lurked beneath the moon's surface.

While the north pole shows some indication of geologic activity, the south pole is much more active, according to Choblet. This is partly because the ice is much thicker at the north pole. In addition, the south pole has enough cracks in the ice to let water seep out into interstellar space.

"Where Enceladus gets the sustained power to remain active has always been a bit of a mystery, but we've now considered in greater detail how the structure and composition of the moon's rocky core could play a key role in generating the necessary energy," Choblet said, in a statement by the European Space Agency.

It will take future missions to analyze the organic molecules present in Enceladus' water plumes before scientists know if the hydrothermal conditions on the moon have allowed life to take hold, according to Nicolas Altobelli, ESA's Cassini project scientist.

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