Ocean Worlds Beyond Earth
We’re incredibly lucky to live on a planet drenched in water, nestled in a perfect distance from our sun and wrapped with magnetic fields keeping our atmosphere intact against harsh radiation and space weather.
We know from recent research that life can persist in the cruelest of environments here on Earth, which gives us hope to finding life thriving on other worlds. While we have yet to find life outside of Earth, we are optimistic about the possibilities, especially on other ocean worlds right here in our solar system.
So…What’s the News?!
Two of our veteran missions are providing tantalizing new details about icy, ocean-bearing moons of Jupiter and Saturn, further enhancing the scientific interest of these and other “ocean worlds” in our solar system and beyond!
Cassini scientists announce that a form of energy for life appears to exist in Saturn’s moon Enceladus, and Hubble researchers report additional evidence of plumes erupting from Jupiter’s moon Europa.
The Two Missions: Cassini and Hubble
Cassini discovered that this little moon of Saturn was active in 2005. The discovery that Enceladus has jets of gas and icy particles coming out of its south polar region surprised the world. Later we determined that plumes of material are coming from a global ocean under the icy crust, through large cracks known as “tiger stripes.”
We have more evidence now – this time sampled straight from the plume itself – of hydrothermal activity, and we now know the water is chemically interacting with the rock beneath the ocean and producing the kind of chemistry that could be used by microbes IF they happened to be there.
This is the culmination of 12 years of investigations by Cassini and a capstone finding for the mission. We now know Enceladus has nearly all the ingredients needed for life as we know it.
The Cassini spacecraft made its deepest dive through the plume on Oct. 28, 2015. From previous flybys, Cassini determined that nearly 98% of the gas in the plume is water and the rest is a mixture of other molecules, including carbon dioxide, methane and ammonia.
Cassini’s other instruments provided evidence of hydrothermal activity in the ocean. What we really wanted to know was…Is there hydrogen being produced that microbes could use to make energy? And that’s exactly what we found!
To be clear…we haven’t discovered microbes at Enceladus, but vents of this type at Earth host these kinds of life. We’re cautiously excited at the prospect that there might be something like this at Enceladus too!
The Hubble Space Telescope has also been studying another ocean world in our solar system: Europa!
Europa is one of the four major moons of Jupiter, about the size of our own moon but very different in appearance. It’s a cold, icy world with a relatively smooth, bright surface crisscrossed with dark cracks and patches of reddish material.
What makes Europa interesting is that it’s believed to have a global ocean, underneath a thick crust of ice. In fact, it’s got about twice as much ocean as planet Earth!
In 2014, we detected evidence of intermittent water plumes on the surface of Europa, which is interesting because they may provide us with easier access to subsurface liquid water without having to drill through miles of ice.
And now, in 2016, we’ve found one particular plume candidate that appears to be at the same location that it was seen in 2014.
This is exciting because if we can establish that a particular feature does repeat, then it is much more likely to be real and we can attempt to study and understand the processes that cause it to turn on or off.
This plume also happens to coincide with an area where Europa is unusually warm as compared to the surrounding terrain. The plume candidates are about 30 to 60 miles (50 to 100 kilometers) in height and are well-positioned for observation, being in a relatively equatorial and well-determined location.
What Does All This Mean and What’s Next?
Hubble and Cassini are inherently different missions, but their complementary scientific discoveries, along with the synergy between our current and planned missions, will help us in finding out whether we are alone in the universe.
Hubble will continue to observe Europa. If you’re wondering how we might be able to get more information on the Europa plume, the upcoming Europa Clipper mission will be carrying a suite of 9 instruments to investigate whether the mysterious icy moon could harbor conditions favorable for life. Europa Clipper is slated to launch in the 2020s.
This future mission will be able to study the surface of Europa in great detail and assess the habitability of this moon. Whether there’s life there or not is a question for this future mission to discover!
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