Saturn’s Wet Moon Enceladus Could Launch Microbes Fast Into Space, Scientists Say

— has been considered by astronomers to be one of the most fascinating bodies in our solar system. (Illustration)Future Publishing via Getty Images

Enceladus, Saturn’s sixth largest moon, has a secret. About 20 km below the icy crust of this “veined eyeball” moon is a warm, dark saltwater ocean thought to have the same types of hydrothermal vents as Earth’s oceans, and where microbes grow.

Is the same thing happening on Enceladus?

We’re probably not talking about strange eyeless sea creatures, largely because the total biomass the moon’s subterranean ocean could support may be less than that of a whale.

Tiny particles of icy silica from the sea floor are known to eventually be sprayed into space from fractures in the ice called “tiger stripes” near the hotter south pole of Enceladus. These particles help form Saturn’s second outermost E ring.

But they could also contain biosignatures, the first evidence of life beyond Earth.

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However, until now, planetary scientists did not know how this silica enters space and how long it takes.

Published in Communications Earth & Environment, new research using data on Enceladus’ orbit, ocean and geology collected by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft sheds light on the process.

It shows that it only takes a few months for tidal heating in the rocky core of Enceladus to create currents that transport silica from hydrothermal vents to the deep sea.

developed in the UCLA-led study, showing the buoyancy effects on silica grains produced at hydrothermal vents along the seafloor and how this ultimately leads to their escape through cracks in the outer ice shell . Ashley Schoenfeld/UCLA; NASA JPL

“Our research shows that these flows are strong enough to pick up material from the sea floor and bring it to the shell of ice that separates the ocean from the vacuum of space,” said Ashley Schoenfeld, group leader and PhD student at the ‘UCLA in Planetary Sciences. in a report.

“The tiger-striped fractures that cut through the ice shell in this subterranean ocean may act as direct conduits for captured materials to be thrown into space… Enceladus gives us free samples of what’s hidden deep below .”

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There is already a mission tentatively explored by NASA to “taste” the silica spewed into space.

The Enceladus Orbilander mission would have a spacecraft orbiting the moon twice a day for 200 days specifically to sample its plumes. Then it would land, stay on the surface for a few years to sample the plume material that has fallen to the surface – and what makes Enceladus so bright and reflective.

The mission is scheduled for launch in October 2038 (with a backup in November 2039) to arrive in 2050.

I wish you clear skies and big eyes.

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I am an experienced science, technology and travel journalist and astronomer who writes about night sky exploration, solar and lunar eclipses, moon sighting, astro travel, astronomy and space exploration. I am the editor of and the author of “A Stargazing Program for Beginners: A Pocket Field Guide” (Springer, 2015), as well as numerous eclipse hunting guides.

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