A tiny moon, small enough to comfortably rest in the Gulf of Mexico with more than enough leg room has concealed a secret for millennia. Stuck in a tidally-locked orbit around Saturn, NASA announced on Thursday the moon, Enceladus, has most of the building blocks to support life as we know it - two out of 60 moons ain't bad, right?
It is a common expression to not judge a book by its cover and this little moon could not be a more fitting example as to why. What appears to be a frozen and hospitable wasteland, where on one side dawn never breaks, the horizon could actually be thriving with aquatic life, thanks to warm underground seas.
NASA's Cassini spacecraft first caught a glimpse of Saturn and its rings in early November 2002 and has been closely monitoring the planet and its 60 neighboring satellites ever since. It was only three years later that Cassini spotted evidence of plumes erupting from the Enceladus' south polar terrain, sending vapor and solid particles hundreds of miles into space.
Due to the finding, NASA directed Casini to plunge through this vapor which collected thousands of particles using instruments such as the Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS). Analysis of the vapor jets indicated the presence of organic and nitrogen-bearing molecules, as well as salts and silicates which suggested ocean water could potentially be in contact with a rocky core.
In a subsequent flyby through the plume in 2015, Cassini's INMS was programmed into a mode that helped to minimize any analytical artifacts that had previously compromised the measurements of the energy source, molecular hydrogen.
Further analysis of the data by scientists Jonathan Lunie, Christopher Glein, Hunter Waite, and others, confirmed that the H2 was produced within the moon Enceladus. Active energy sources, possibly akin to undersea water vents, are actively making the molecule within the little moon itself, bringing us closer to finding potential alien life, as project scientist Linda Spilker stated:
"We now know that Enceladus has almost all of the ingredients that you need to support life as we know it on Earth."
Here on Earth, it is well known that complex ecosystems can harbor in some of the most remote places, take for example hydrothermal volcanic vents. Our planet's vents gush bubbling clouds of heated chemicals where magma and seawater violently collide at great depths. The formation of these vents creates chimney-like structures, home to microbes which feed and thrive on energy created by these chemical reactions to power their own metabolisms - all without sunlight.
Enceladus' hidden ocean may be as warm as 90 degrees Celsius or 194 degrees Fahrenheit at the bottom of the alien floor. So it is plausible the moon may be able to sustain life, however, it is important to note that aliens or extraterrestrial life have not been found, but we may have found their home, as stated by Professor Jeffrey Kargel, from the University of Arizona:
"This finding does not mean that life exists there, but it makes life more plausible and potentially quite abundant if a fraction of the hydrogen is used to drive biology."
In one last hurrah, Cassini, which is running out of fuel, will end its 20-year journey to Saturn and its moons by crashing into Saturn's atmosphere. The plan to terminate Cassini's mission is in part to prevent the spacecraft from accidently landing on any neighboring celestial bodies, where it could potentially contaminate life - or even jump start it.