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It’s not really a newly discovered moon, is it? It’s just a hair over 150 kilometers wide and yet shrouded in mystery.
“It seems relatively small compared to other moons discovered throughout the moon’s history,” said Roger Revelle, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science, in a statement.
The Mars Project, led by the University of Hawaii, is exploring the Enceladus moon in search of organic compounds. By gathering and analyzing data from NASA’s Cassini probe, the researchers will help determine whether the moon contains water and is able to support life.
The moons of Saturn
The Enceladus moon in orbit around Saturn. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
Enceladus, as it’s also known, is about three times the size of the moon Mercury, and its polar region is a mysterious land.
Enceladus has a well-known heat source, the ice that solidifies in the polar region of the moon, believed to be around 80 to 120 miles (130 kilometers) deep.
Around this surface and inside the land of the frozen craters lies a deep ocean, whose interior “would be remarkably warm,” according to team leader Yury Novikov.
This heated subsurface ocean can be infiltrated by an inorganic air that’s been generated by geological activity inside Enceladus, Novikov said.
So, what is that gas?
“The evidence indicates this gas could be water,” Revelle said in a statement. “It does not say this is, or this is not the case. It does not mean that if we take another look, it will not be there. It does not mean the whole place will be rocky and carbonates,” according to Revelle.
But the lack of rocks and the liquid nature of the surface has others questioning whether Enceladus really is an alien world.
“While this is clear from past research, the lack of rocks at the surface does make us hesitate about the true nature of the system,” UC Irvine scientist Caroline Reinolt said in a statement.
“My initial thoughts were that the model runs using varied permatures and the resulting subsurface liquid water will never show rocks and crust, therefore this could be the only water planet in the solar system.”
There are numerous studies exploring whether or not Enceladus is “Hot Jupiters” that harbor life. If the light temperature of this ocean is heated by volcanic activity, the water could also contain a frost in the winter that could harbor life.
“If it does have the properties that will support life, then it’s a ‘Goldilocks’ sample with the right temperature and conditions to sustain life,” Revelle said.
The unveiling of this discovery is only the first step for NASA’s mission to Enceladus.
The second spacecraft, a German-French “Cassini” twin, is scheduled to launch from the US this fall.