Scientists have uncovered evidence of a massive underground ocean of water on Saturn’s Enceladus moon. According to NASA, the Cassini spacecraft made gravity measurements that show the internal structure of the moon – including a sea of water underneath the moon’s icy crust. The discovery sparks scientific interest once again in Enceladus as a potential home for extraterrestrial life within our solar system.
Scientists had previously centered their focus on Titan and Europa as possible homes to microbial life and had dismissed Enceladus as a potential candidate. In 2005, however, Cassini discovered water vapor and ice on the moon, prompting scientists to pursue further research into a potential water reservoir. Now, Cassini’s most recent pass by has revealed data that shows an ocean potentially six miles deep beneath a 25 mile layer of ice.
According to Linda Spilker, Cassini’s project scientist, the discovery is particularly exciting because the conditions appear just right for life. ”Material from Enceladus’ south polar jets contains salty water and organic molecules, the basic chemical ingredients for life,” Spilker said in a NASA press release. “Their discovery expanded our view of the ‘habitable zone‘ within our solar system and in planetary systems of other stars. This new validation that an ocean of water underlies the jets furthers understanding about this intriguing environment.”
Cassini has flown past Enceladus 19 times so far, and it was three flybys between 2010 and 2012 that helped reveal this new information. The Cassini-Huygens project is a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency.