Enceladus’ ocean would be old enough to house extraterrestrial life


A recent study suggests that the underground ocean of Enceladus, Saturn’s moon, could be a billion years old. In other words, it would be old enough to allow life to develop, but not “too old” to afford to maintain it.

We know from Cassini that there could be a global ocean beneath the icy surface of Enceladus and that this liquid water is probably heated by hydrothermal activity near the core-mantle boundary. This raises the question of life, since microorganisms evolve in similar environments at the bottom of the terrestrial oceans.

A few days ago, a study revealed that the pH of this water seems similar to that observed in the oceans of the Earth. It was also learned that the presence of ammonia – in large quantities – could be a potential fuel source for life.

Good news, but there is another factor to take into account to gauge the life potential of the moon.

The question is indeed important. On the one hand, an ocean too young may not have had time to mix the necessary ingredients to create life or disperse it. And on the other hand, an ocean too “old” would mean that the chemical reactions needed to keep living things could have stopped.

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In other words, Enceladus could not afford to maintain life. In this sense, Marc Neveu and his team at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, have recently undertaken the task to assess the age of the underground ocean of the moon. And to do this, they relied on the data collected by the Cassini probe.

After carrying out about fifty simulations, the researchers then determined that Enceladus’ ocean could be about a billion years old. It would then be, according to them, the ideal age to shelter life. But not so fast. These results are based only on a few simulations. Researchers are planning to refine their models with even more precise data.

Ultimately, being able to date the underground ocean of Enceladus could motivate a mission directly on the spot. NASA is also in talks with billionaire entrepreneur Yuri Milner to set up a private mission on the moon. A feasibility study could be conducted as early as next year. In the meantime, we now know that the American agency has set its sights on Titan, another moon of Saturn. Which, too, seems to harbor an underground ocean. The Dragonfly mission should arrive on the spot in 2034.

Shakes Gilles

Editor of The Talking Democrat. He enjoys bike riding, kayaking and playing soccer. On a slow weekend, you'll find him with a book by the lake.