Enceladus shows signs of hydrothermal vents

Enceladus' plumes
This composite image shows how plumes of water emanate from fissures in the surface ice of Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons. (NASA / JPL Illustration)

Scientists have detected molecules of hydrogen in plumes of watery material erupting from cracks in the ice of Enceladus, a moon of Saturn – and that suggests an ocean beneath the ice has hydrothermal vents that just might be capable of sustaining life.

The findings, based on an analysis of data from the Cassini orbiter, are the subject of a study published today in Science as well as a NASA news briefing.

“We’ve always wondered, ‘Are we alone in the universe?’” Linda Spilker, project scientist for the Cassini mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told GeekWire. “Now, as we look out from our own planet, we find worlds in our own solar system that might have life.”

The direct evidence is still wanting, however. The research team, headed by the Southwest Research Institute’s Hunter Waite and Christopher Glein, made their conclusions based on a chain of evidence that started with observations from Cassini’s Ion Neutral Mass Spectrometer.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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