Life on Enceladus? NASA's Cassini's Deepest Dive Reveals Ocean Composition

First Posted: Dec 15, 2015 08:29 AM EST

The NASA Cassini spacecraft has done its deepest dive to date through the icy plumes that spew from Saturn's moon, Enceladus. The new findings from this expedition may hint at the possibility of habitable conditions in the global sea beneath the hard exterior of the moon.

In this latest dive, the Cassini spacecraft passed just 30 miles above the moon's south polar region. Mission controllers established two-way communication with the spacecraft in the afternoon and then collected data from the encounter.

"Cassini's stunning images are providing us a quick look at Enceladus from this ultra-close flyby, but some of the most exciting science is yet to come," said Linda Spilker, the mission's project scientist, in a news release.

In fact, researchers have already studied data from Cassini's gas analyzer and dust detector instrument, which directly sampled the moon's plume of gas and dust-sized icy particles during the flyby. These analyses should provide important insights about the composition of the global ocean beneath the surface of Enceladus and any hydrothermal activity occurring on the ocean floor.

So far, researchers have made some surprising discoveries. It turns out that the ocean beneath the icy surface has roughly the same pH as Windex or soapy water. This is an indication that the water has been in contact with rock, which may mean that it has created life-friendly chemistry.

Currently, the researchers haven't yet done a full analysis on whether or not there are hydrothermal vents. If there are, though, this could mean that the moon may host microbes in its oceans -or at least have conditions hospitable to microbes.

Want more information about the Cassini mission? Visit NASA's website to find out more.

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