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Saturn Moon Has Elements That Could Support Life

April 20, 2017

Saturn’s moon Enceladus is just over 300 miles (500 kilometers) in diameter, not even half as wide as Pluto’s moon Charon. But despite its size, and despite the Saturn system being outside of what was thought to be our star’s habitable zone where liquid water can exist on a planet's surface, some scientists now think Enceladus is capable of harboring life.

The global ocean of Enceladus is likely as dark as a place can be, but is likely neither serene nor quiet. As Enceladus travels in its elliptical orbit about Saturn, the moon flexes as it gets nearer to its parent planet, then farther, then nearer again. Four great cracks known as the “tiger stripes” near its south pole spread, then squeeze and grind. Warm salt water, gases and minerals erupt through those fractures in the miles-thick ice shell and blast through the surface at 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) per hour into space indicating hydrothermal activity.

“They may be different but all hydrothermal vents tend to have not just bacteria and other microorganisms, but large, multicellular, complex organisms as well,” said Morgan Cable, a research scientist who studies ocean worlds at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Those organisms include crabs, octopi and tubeworms.


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