Saturn's Moon Enceladus Is Our Best Shot at Finding Alien Life in the Solar System

July 6, 2016 | Johannes Van Zijl

Saturn's moon, Enceladus
Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Scientists meet to discuss how to search for life on Saturn’s sixth-largest moon!

As astronomers keep discovering new exoplanets with the potential for hosting alien life, there is one place in our own solar system that shouldn’t be forgotten: Saturn’s moon, Enceladus. 

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has been orbiting Saturn since 2004 and has made some intriguing discoveries about the planet and its moons over the years. One of Cassini’s groundbreaking discoveries found icy plumes of saltwater and organic molecule gushing out of fractures near the south pole of Saturns sixth-largest moon Enceladus. Another interesting observation found that an underground liquid ocean exists on the mysterious world. These are both promising signs of a potential for harboring life.  

As Cassini’s mission is nearing an end in 2017, scientists have been busy planning a new dedicated mission that will focus on Enceladus, searching the moon for signs of life. Last month, planetary scientist, Carolyn Porco, the imaging team leader for the Cassini mission gathered researchers from various backgrounds at the University of California, Berkeley to strategize ways to search for alien life on Enceladus.

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During the gathering, the researchers speculated over the two major theories of how life on Earth originated, in the oceans or on land. The group discussed how exploring the oceans of Enceladus may give scientists insight into how life on Earth started and whether any signs of life will be found in the moon’s oceans in the future.

"You're not just searching for life, you're searching for an understanding of the nature of that life, and how it compares to life on Earth," said McKay. "If life started at least twice in our Solar System, then you know the Universe is full of life."

There are more than 90 geysers on Enceladus ejecting gushes of water vapor through the moon’s surface. This will be an ideal opportunity for a future mission to take samples from this ejected water vapor, which will provide clues to what’s below the ice shell that covers the moon’s surface.

"The plume is coming right out of the ocean, so why would we want to land?" planetary scientist Chris McKay from NASA's Ames Research Centre told Scientific American. "We can get the freshest stuff, coming right from the source."

A future mission to Enceladus is no guarantee that signs of life will be found below the moon’s icy surface. There are still many obstacles a spacecraft visiting the ice moon will have to overcome, like not being able to land or collect enough samples to verify whether life exist in its vast underground ocean.

"We're walking a thin line between what we know based on Earth life and what we expect life would be like otherwise," said researcher Alfonso Davila from the SETI Institute in California. "It's one of the things that prevents us from coming up with a good strategy."

A future mission to Enceladus is inevitable; we will just have to eagerly wait until such a mission is executed to find out whether life exists on Enceladus.

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