The human race has long been searching for another planet to call home. You know just in case we blow up Earth by accident or pollute the planet and animals to extinction.
At first, the obvious choice was Mars because of its proximity. Then Europa was considered but eventually that fell through. Now a new study in Nature shows that Enceladus, an icy moon of Saturn, likely has an active hydrothermal system, which means its capable of sustaining life.
Enceladus has been a planet of interest since 2005 when the Cassini spacecraft first saw plumes of water vapor coming from its south pole.
But it wasnt clear how those plumes were connected to the potential subsurface ocean. Most of the planets surface is ice over 25 miles thick so scientists had trouble finding evidence of hydrothermal activity.
But a team led by the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics found tiny grains of rock only about 28 nm in radius, not much bigger than a strand of human DNA with the Cassini that may have been formed by hydrothermal vents in the ocean of Enceladus, according to The Verge.
The silicon-rich grains are similar to what is found in sand and quartz here on Earth, which are commonly formed by the hydrothermal processes.
The fact that these grains exist means that Enceladus has an active hydrothermal system.
Here’s how the process starts:
The ocean underneath Enceladuss surface is heated by the gravitational tug of Saturn. Temperatures can reach 90 degrees Celsius, or about 200 degrees Fahrenheit, which helps dissolve minerals from the moon’s rocky core.
That water cools on its way towards the surface, and those minerals get trapped in larger grains of ice as they push through vents and out into space. There, the ice erodes, and the tiny silicon-rich grains are left bare, where the scientists were able to detect them with Cassini’s dust analyzer.
The paper’s authors spent four years studying data from the Cassini spacecraft and performing computer simulations and experiments before reaching a conclusion so its safe to say that the evidence is sound.
“We methodically searched for alternative explanations for the nanosilica grains, but every new result pointed to a single, most likely origin,” says Frank Postberg in the ESA’s release on the study. Postberg is a scientist who works with Cassini’s dust analyzer data at the University of Heidelberg in Germany and is a co-author on the paper.
Such news is incredibly exciting because the beginning of life on Earth is attributed to hydrothermal vents. Before we only knew that Enceladus had water. But now, we know that the water is heated and has minerals, which are the most basic ingredients for life.
Enceladus is about to get a lot more hits on Google.