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Europa and Enceladus: Hotspots for Life

9 Feb 2018, 15:13 UTC
Europa and Enceladus: Hotspots for Life NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

The search for life in the solar system has been one of the guiding goals of space exploration since its conception. The recent discoveries that the icy moons of the giant planets in our solar system contain vast oceans, has made them prime targets for that search. In particular, Jupiter’s moon Europa and Saturn’s moon Enceladus (Figure 1) are currently the most promising candidates among the icy moons, as they appear to fulfill the basic requirements for them to host life: the heat that is generated by the tidal pull of the parent planet maintains a subglacial ocean in the liquid state and in direct contact with the rocky core of the moon, through which reactions critical for the creation of the building blocks of basic life as we understand it can occur. Exchange processes through the thick ice shells covering those moons, much like in the polar regions of Earth, mean that further chemicals needed for life are transported from the surface where they have been delivered by e.g. micrometeoroids, all the way down to the ocean. The chemical makeup of plume jets found to emanate from the south pole of Enceladus by the recently decommissioned Cassini spacecraft further point to a chemically rich ocean hospitable to microbial life.

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