NASA: "Enceladus a Lifezone Hotspot --90 Geyser Jets Spewing Water Vapor & Organics"
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March 28, 2012

NASA: "Enceladus a Lifezone Hotspot --90 Geyser Jets Spewing Water Vapor & Organics"

 

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In a series of tantalizingly close flybys to Saturn's moon "Enceladus," NASA's Cassini spacecraft has revealed watery jets erupting from what may be a vast underground sea. These jets, which spew through cracks in the moon's icy shell, could lead back to a habitable zone that is uniquely accessible in all the solar system.

"More than 90 jets of all sizes near Enceladus's south pole are spraying water vapor, icy particles, and organic compounds all over the place," says Carolyn Porco, an award-winning planetary scientist and leader of the Imaging Science team for NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. "Cassini has flown several times now through this spray and has tasted it. And we have found that aside from water and organic material, there is salt in the icy particles. The salinity is the same as that of Earth's oceans."

The Image above is a color-composite RGB image of Enceladus' south pole with geysers blasting water ice into orbit! Made from combining raw images taken in red, green and blue spectral filters and a clear channel used for luminosity. From Cassini's November 30th flyby of Enceladus. The tan color is reflected light from Saturn, direct sunlight is coming from the foreground right, illuminating a sliver of Enceladus' limb and lighting up the icy geysers. The moon's shadow penetrates the geysers' spray at varying depths.

Thermal measurements of Enceladus's fissures have revealed temperatures as high as -120 deg Fahrenheit (190 Kelvin). "If you add up all the heat, 16 gigawatts of thermal energy are coming out of those cracks," says Porco.She believes the small moon, with its sub-surface liquid sea, organics, and an energy source, may host the same type of life we find in similar environments on Earth.

"The kind of ecologies Enceladus might harbor could be like those deep within our own planet. Abundant heat and liquid water are found in Earth's subterranean volcanic rocks. Organisms in those rocks thrive on hydrogen (produced by reactions between liquid water and hot rocks) and available carbon dioxide and make methane, which gets recycled back into hydrogen. And it's all done entirely in the absence of sunlight or anything produced by sunlight."

"It's erupting out into space where we can sample it. It sounds crazy but it could be snowing microbes on the surface of this little world. In the end, it's is the most promising place I know of for an astrobiology search. We don't even need to go scratching around on the surface. We can fly through the plume and sample it. Or we can land on the surface, look up and stick our tongues out.  And voilà…we have what we came for."

The source of Enceladus's heat appears to be Saturn itself. Researchers say Saturn's gravitational pull causes the moon's shape to change slightly on a daily basis as it orbits. Flexing motions in its interior generate heat--like the heat you feel in a paperclip when you bend it back and forth rapidly.

"But the tidal flexing occurring now is not enough to account for all the heat presently coming out of Enceladus. One way out of this dilemma is to assume that some of the heat observed today was been generated and stored internally in the past."Porco believes Enceladus's orbit could have been much more eccentric, and the greater the eccentricity, she says, the greater the tidal flexing and resulting structural variations that produce the heat.

In this scenario, the heat would have been stored inside the little moon by melting some of the ice to recharge the liquid sea."Now that the orbit's eccentricity has lessened, the heat emanating from the interior is a combination of heat produced today and in the past.  But since more heat is coming out presently than is being produced, Enceladus is in a cooling off stage and the liquid water is returning to ice. There are models to show that it never really freezes entirely, so the eccentricity may increase again, restarting the cycle."

Whatever is turning up the heat, Porco has a plan of action. It's simple:"We need to get back to Enceladus and check it out."

 

                                     Enceladus_plume

The Daily Galaxy via Science@NASA

Image: NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute. Edited by Jason Major

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Comments

"Going back" to Enceladus will, I have little doubt, be merely the first step in exciting explorations and discoveries about that little moon. Some time during the first half of this century we will probably want to launch a dedicated exploration mission to Enceladus, first with robot probes and eventually sending manned missions.

Doing either of those things, let along both, will require a good deal of technological advancement.

For one thing, the computers that run our robots will need a good deal more internal judgement than they have now. Their general functions will also have to be much broader than anything we've sent into space before now, especially in the area of self-repair (or, more likely, repairing one another).

For manned missions, we'll need to start with life-support systems that go beyond just storing enough oxygen for the expected round trip (and, fortunately, the plans being made for Mars missions are helping to provide exactly that). I think we'll also want improved speed in space travel so our guys can get there and back with less than a year at a time in microgravity (and again a strong Mars mission will do well toward that).

But what could we learn from Enceladus? That, rather obviously, depends on what we find there. If we find complex life forms there -- and I think it not unlikely that we could find creatures as advanced as fully-aquatic cetaceans -- we could learn a good deal about nearly every division of biology.

It's even possible that we could find plentiful plants and animals whose extracts and excretions can be used in medicine. I can imagine finding, for example, a form of plankton on Enceladus that could be used to treat ALS.

And, at that, my predictions in this could be quite modest.

I luv u bob.

Well we know microbial life, formed on this planet due to whatever circumstances. I believe the Mars rocks prove to my satisfaction that microbial life formed there as well (yet to be proven) but highly likely given the planets past. Jupiter's moons are very interesting (Io especially) as a potential life harboring moon. Now Enceladus is showing signs of possible life. With the discovery that newborn stars and star systems are birthing grounds for complex organic materials. I think it's pretty clear from all the recent signs that the universe is most likely teeming with at the very least microbial life. After all we are seeing signs of it in at least 4 places in our 1 solar system. Add to that the fact that we do not know what other forms of life could arise in different circumstances or other environments. We may 1 day after exploring space long enough find a creature or form of life that evolved in the vacuum of space itself. The possibilities for life's evolution seem to truly be endless in our universe.

wow, most interesting bit of space info ive heard in a long while, about time they found some decent evidence.

the alien fanboys will be happy for sure :D

really looking forward to hearing more about any research they might do:)

for once i can say congratulations to the team rather than bitching about self assured theorists.

"computers that run our robots will need a good deal more internal judgement than they have now. Their general functions will also have to be much broader than anything we've sent into space before now, especially in the area of self-repair (or, more likely, repairing one another)."

thats in progress, they've already developed and produced 3d microchips based on neural networks that are far superior to the human brain (in some respects).
we just need to work out how to teach them correctly and efficiently before they work out were stupid and wasteful and nuke us.

We need to get back to Enceladus

gret movie title: return to Enceladus

Going back to Enceladus may NOT be necessary to get a VERY GOOD indication that there IS life on this moon! Although Cassini cannot detect complex organic molecules that would ABSOLUTELY confirm the presence of life, i believe (correct me if i am wrong) that three simple molecules, if detected,.would raise the likelyhood of life to ABOVE 99%, and perhaps even greater! These molecules are, Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S), Methanol (CH3OH), and Methyl Mercaptan (CH3SH). The third can only occur naturally as a chemical reaction between the first two, and no natural NON_BIOLOGICAL process is yet known to produce the reaction! This reaction would have to be produces below Enceledus' surface, and the contents spewn out into space.

I wonder what the mass is of the ejected material? How long has this been going on? does all or most of it wind up back on the surface? You would think that any sub-surface liquid would get used up in a few thousand years.


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