Enceladus used to be just another icy moon until the Cassini spacecraft spotted geysers on its surface, spewing water 125 miles into the sky back in 2005. Now, after years of research, scientists have published two studies suggesting that these geysers are caused by hydrothermal vents or fissures that heat the water at the bottom of the 6-mile-deep ocean beneath the Saturn's moon ice crust. Why is that important? Well, if the vents truly exist, the waters that surround them will contain chemicals and minerals necessary for life. Plus, the conditions around those vents will be similar to the environment surrounding Atlantic Ocean's hydrothermal field -- the place where life on Earth might have begun.
The first study published in Nature explores the findings of the researchers who analyzed and studied samples from Saturn's outermost ring within the past four years. They determined that the minuscule particles the spacecraft collected are grains of silica formed from water erupted by the geysers. Since these particles can only be formed by water with specific saline content, pH and temperatures around 200 degrees Fahrenheit, they strongly indicate the existence of hydrothermal activity beneath the moon's oceans.
The other study published in Geophysical Research Letters reinforces the belief that there are hydrothermal vents on the Saturn moon. It suggests that the methane content in gas and ice particles collected from southern geysers is a product of hydrothermal activities. Whether or not life actually exists on Enceladus, however, remains to be seen. Space agencies will probably need to send underwater robots similar to the ones they plan to send to Jupiter's moon Europa to collect samples before they can confirm anything. If they do find signs of life, then Enceladus might be the key to helping us understand how life started on our planet.
[Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech]