NASA’s Cassini has confirmed that Saturn’s sixth biggest moon, Enceladus, hosts a global ocean and researchers are determined to see whether or not they can find any traces of life.
Recent images from the Cassini orbiter have shown that the ocean spreads across the entire moon and offered proof that life may be hiding right beneath the surface.
Carolyn Porco, study co-author, leader for the Cassini imaging team at the Space Science Institute (Boulder, Colorado), and visiting scholar over at the University of California (Berkeley), gave a statement stressing the importance of the finding.
He said that “This is a major step beyond what we understood about this moon before, and it demonstrates the kind of deep-dive discoveries we can make with long-lived orbiter missions to other planets”.
While past investigations of Enceladus have only managed to offer proof of deep reservoirs and icy geysers, the new study notes that Cassini has observed simple organic molecules, icy particles and a fine spray of water vapor coming out of fractures close to Enceladus’s south pole, which implies that that they are “being fed by this vast liquid water reservoir”.
Researchers from the Cassini imaging team were inspired to examine the icy moon closer after noticing the wobble that it had in its orbit while circling Saturn. They set out to measure Enceladus’ rotation by putting together a collection of mapped images, some of them dating back to 2004.
The results of the analysis showed the wobble is caused both by the moon’s not quite spherical shape, and by Saturn’s very own gravitational pull.
While earlier studies have concluded that Enceladus definitely has liquid water under the surface of its south pole, with some of them suggesting that it might be global, this is the first study to actually prove that the ocean has global coverage.
Peter Thomas, lead author and member of the Cassini imaging team at Cornell University (Ithaca, New York City), gave a statement of his own informing that “this was a hard problem” which required the research tram to look at years of calculations and observations, from a wide range of disciplines.
However, Thomas and his team are confident they “finally got it right”.
The main question that field experts are now trying to answer is whether Enceladus once hosted life, is currently hosting life, or has the potential to host life.
Sarah Ballard, NASA Carl Sagan fellow from the University of Washington (Seattle), also gave a statement explaining that a moon can only be habitable if it isn’t sitting too far away from its host planet as this planet’s magnetic shield protects it from solar radiation.
But it can’t sit too close to its host planet either, as this would make the moon too hot due to the reflected radiation and light from the planet’s surface.
The conclusions of the stuffy are set to be published in the journal Icarus.
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