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If Humans Are Ever Going to See Alien Life, Here’s Where It Will Happen

Scientists are all atwitter over Enceladus, one of Saturn's moons and one of the most likely places in our solar system to harbor life.

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The fountains of Enceladus as seen by Cassini. Image: NASA

Mars Attacks, The Angry Red Planet, Ghosts of Mars, Christmas on Mars, Devil Girl from Mars, Flight to Mars, Invaders from Mars, Abbot and Costello Go to Mars, the list goes on. When it comes to alien life forms, they always seem to come from Mars. But it’s actually Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons, that seems to have the highest likelihood of harboring life, according to The Guardian:

The idea that a moon a mere 310 miles in diameter, orbiting in deep, cold space,  1bn miles from the sun, could provide a home for alien lifeforms may seem extraordinary. Nevertheless, a growing number of researchers consider this is a real prospect and argue that Enceladus should be rated a top priority for future space missions.

But scientists are excited. Really excited. Charles Cockell, an astrobiologist from Edinburgh University, told The Guardian:

“If someone gave me several billion dollars to build whatever space probe I wanted, I would have no hesitation. I would construct one that could fly to Saturn and collect samples from Enceladus. I would go there rather than Mars or the icy moons ofJupiter, such as Europa, despite encouraging signs that they could support life. Primitive, bacteria-like lifeforms may indeed exist on these worlds but they are probably buried deep below their surfaces and will be difficult to access. On Enceladus, if there are lifeforms, they will be easy to pick up. They will be pouring into space.”

Scientists have known about Enceladus for a long time – since 1789 in fact. But the excitement over its potential to maintain life is new – based on a discovery made by Cassini that suggests that the moon has both atmosphere and geysers of water that contain organic compounds like propane, ethane and acetylene. When it comes to looking for planets that could have life, that’s all really promising. And further observations indicate that the moon has a subterranean liquid ocean. Which is not only really cool sounding, but also a lot like Earth’s own deep sea vents.

At first, scientists thought this was all too good to be true. There must be some measurement error or perhaps Cassini was picking up data from Saturn itself. Michel Dougherty, at the Imperial College London and in charge of one of Cassini’s instruments, asked the people driving the probe to look closer at Enceladus.

“I didn’t sleep for two nights before that,” says Dougherty. “If Cassini found nothing we would have looked stupid and the management team might not have listened to us again.”

Her fears were groundless. Cassini swept over Enceladus at a height of 173km and showed that it did indeed possess an atmosphere, albeit a thin one consisting of water vapour, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrogen. “It was wonderful,” says Dougherty. “I just thought: wow!”

So what’s next? We go there. Easier said than done, of course. It will probably take about two or three decades, scientists say, before they will know the answers to the questions bubbling up inside them. And getting humans to Enceladus would be a monumental task — but not as impossible as getting them to other solar systems.

 

More at Smithsonian.com

What Will Happen When We Find Alien Life?

Calculating the Odds of Intelligent Alien Life

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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