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Saturn’s moon Enceladus may offer ‘free lunch’

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)

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.

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Imagine intelligent aliens on water worlds

Undersea exploration
A future mission to Europa, an ice-covered moon of Jupiter, could send a probe through the ice to explore what’s thought to be an ocean beneath. (NASA / JPL Illustration)

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.

In an essay published today on Smithsonian Air and Space magazine’s website, Schulze-Makuch notes that a fair number of potentially habitable planets could have surfaces completely covered by oceans. Could life arise on such planets? And if so, how technologically advanced could such species become?

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Billionaire wants to look for life on Enceladus

Oliver Morton and Yuri Milner
Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, at right, chats with The Economist’s Oliver Morton during the “New Space Age” conference at Seattle’s Museum of Flight. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

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.

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Saturn probe will go out in a blaze of science

Cassini orbiter
An artist’s conception shows the Cassini orbiter zooming through the upper layers of Saturn’s atmosphere, heading for a fiery breakup. (NASA / JPL-Caltech Illustration)

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.

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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.

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