Scientists say they've discovered evidence of a watery ocean with warm spots hiding beneath the surface of Saturn's icy moon Enceladus. The findings, described in the journal Nature, are the first signs of hydrothermal activity on another world outside of Earth – and raise the chances that Enceladus has the potential to host microbial life.
Scientists have wondered about what lies within Enceladus at least since NASA's Cassini spacecraft caught the moon spewing salty water vapor out from cracks in its frozen surface. Last year, a study of its gravitational field hinted at a 10-kilometer-thick regional ocean around the south pole lying under an ice crust some 30 to 40 kilometers deep.
Another hint also emerged about a decade ago, when Cassini discovered tiny dust particles escaping Saturn's system that were nanometer-sized and rich in silicon.
"It's a peculiar thing to find particles enriched with silicon," said lead author Hsiang-Wen Hsu, a planetary scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder. In Saturn's moons and among its rings, water ice dominates, so these odd particles clearly stood out.
The scientists traced these particles' origin to Saturn's E-ring, which lies between the orbits of the moons Mimas and Titan and whose icy particles are known to come from Enceladus. So Hsu and colleagues studied the grains to understand what was going on inside the gas giant's frigid satellite.
Rather than coming in a range of sizes, these particles were all uniformly tiny – just a few nanometers across. Studying the spectra of these grains, the scientists found that they were made of silicon dioxide, or silica. That's not common in space, but it's easily found on Earth because it's a product of water interacting with rock. Knowing how silica interacts in given conditions such as temperature, salinity and alkalinity, the scientists could work backward to determine what kind of environment creates these unusual particles.
A scientist could do the same thing with a cup of warm coffee, Hsu said.
"You put in the sugar and as the coffee gets cold, if you know the relation of the solubility of sugar as a function of temperature, you will know how hot your coffee was," Hsu said. "And applying this to Enceladus's ocean, we can derive a minimum [temperature] required to form these particles."
The scientists then ran experiments in the lab to determine how such silica particles came to be. With the particles' particular makeup and size distribution, they could only have formed under very specific circumstances, the study authors found, determining that the silica particles must have formed in water that had less than 4% salinity and that was slightly alkaline (with a pH of about 8.5 to 10.5) and at temperatures of at least 90 degrees Celsius (roughly 190 degrees Fahrenheit).
The heat was likely being generated in part by tidal forces as Saturn's gravity kneads its icy moon. (The tidal forces are also probably what open the cracks in its surface that vent the water vapor into space.)
Somewhere inside the icy body, there was hydrothermal activity – salty warm water interacting with rocks. It's the kind of environment that, on Earth, is very friendly to life.
"It's kind of obvious, the connection between hydrothermal interactions and finding life," Hsu said. "These hydrothermal activities will provide the basic activities to sustain life: the water, the energy source and of course the nutrients that water can leach from the rocks."
Enceladus, Hsu said, is now likely the "second-top object for astrobiology interest" – the first being Jupiter's icy moon and fellow water-world, Europa.
This activity is in all likelihood going on right now, Hsu said – over time, these tiny grains should glom together into larger and larger particles, and because they haven't yet, they must have been recently expelled from Enceladus, within the last few months or few years at most.
Gabriel Tobie of the University of Nantes in France, who was not involved in the research, compared the conditions that created these silica particles to a hydrothermal field in the Atlantic Ocean known as Lost City.
"Because it is relatively cold, Lost City has been posited as a potential analogue of hydrothermal systems in active icy moons. The current findings confirm this," Tobie wrote in a commentary on the paper. "What is more, alkaline hydrothermal vents might have been the birthplace of the first living organisms on the early Earth, and so the discovery of similar environments on Enceladus opens fresh perspectives on the search for life elsewhere in the Solar System."
However, Hsu pointed out, it's not enough to have the right conditions for life – they have to have been around for long enough that life would have a fighting chance to emerge.
"The other factor that is also very important is the time.… For Enceladus, we don't know how long this activity has been or how stable it is," Hsu said. "And so that's a big uncertainty here."
One way to get at this question? Send another mission to Enceladus, Tobie said.
"Cassini will fly through the moon's plume again later this year," he wrote, "but only future missions that can undertake improved in situ investigations, and possibly even return samples to Earth, will be able to confirm Enceladus' astrobiological potential and fully reveal the secrets of its hot springs. "