Does ocean on Enceladus hold life?

Scientists seeking life on Mars may be looking for aliens in the wrong place, a NASA space probe has found. New research reveals that a vast ocean lies underground on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, spewing plumes of water into space.

A plume of water from EnceladusThe discovery would make the distant world the only place in the solar system other than Earth where liquid water is known to exist.

An underground ocean is also suspected on one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa, but water found on Mars is all ice.

It means conditions may be ideal on Enceladus for life to have evolved and aquatic aliens to be swimming around in a warm sea.

UK scientists led by John Zarnecki, of the Open University, are making plans for a special European space mission called Tandem to explore Enceladus and Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, which is thought to resemble a young earth and may have an ocean full of organic chamicals too.

Enceladus is only 318 miles wide but still geologically active. It is crossed by surface vents that squirt vast plumes into space at supersonic speeds.

NASA’s Cassini probe flew through one of these geysers in March and found traces of organic chemicals. Scientists had wondered whether tidal forces from Saturn might be opening the vents and releasing jets of ice. But latest evidence shows that the jets are not caused by Saturn’s pull and instead the tides are keeping liquid water warm inside the moon.

The discovery, revealed in the science journal Nature, was made by scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, the University of Colorado and the University of Central Florida.

One of the scientists, Assistant Professor Joshua Colwell, said: “There are only three places in the solar system we know or suspect to have liquid water near the surface – Earth, Europa and now Saturn’s Enceladus.

“Water is a basic ingredient for life, and there are certainly implications there. If we find that the tidal heating that we believe causes these geysers is a common planetary systems phenomenon, then it gets really interesting.”

Picture: A geyser spewing water from Enceladus, imaged by Cassini. (Photo: NASA).

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Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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