The sea that lies beneath the icy surface of Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons, could provide even more fuel for extraterrestrial organisms than previously thought.
That’s the upshot of a study to be presented at AbSciCon 2019, an astrobiology conference taking place next week in Bellevue, Wash. Hundreds of researchers will be sharing their findings about the prospects for life elsewhere in the solar system and the universe.
Instead of cave dwellers gathered around a campfire, roasting mastodon meat, imagine an octopus tribe floating around a hydrothermal vent at the seafloor, boiling lobsters.
That’s the scenario sketched out by Dirk Schulze-Makuch, an astrobiologist at Germany’s Technical Institute Berlin who’s also an adjunct professor at Arizona State University and Washington State University.
Russian billionaire Yuri Milner today laid out his vision to send the first privately funded interplanetary space mission to look for life at the Saturnian moon Enceladus — but first he had to address less lofty matters.
Milner has been in the news for the past week because newly published confidential documents known as the “Paradise Papers” revealed that two firms controlled by the Russian government backed his early investments in Facebook and Twitter.
So, of course, that was the first topic Milner was asked about during an onstage fireside chat at The Economist’s “New Space Age” conference at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.
Twenty years after its launch to Saturn, NASA has set the Cassini orbiter on a course for certain destruction on Sept. 15 – but there’s a decidedly positive spin to the $3.3 billion mission’s end.
“We’ll be saddened, there’s no doubt about it, at the loss of such an incredible machine,” Cassini program manager Earl Maize said Sept. 13 during a news briefing at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “But I think all of us are going to have a great sense of pride in .. a little bit corny, perhaps … a ‘mission accomplished.’”
The bus-sized, plutonium-powered spacecraft was launched in 1997 and reached Saturn seven years later. It’s logged 4.9 billion miles, sent back nearly half a million images of the ringed planet and its moons, and transmitted 635 gigabytes worth of scientific data so far.
It’ll continue sending data all the way to the end, when it’s expected to break apart and burn up in the upper levels of Saturn’s atmosphere.
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.
“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.