Enceladus's Hydrothermal Vents Could Revolutionize the Search for Extraterrestrial Life

 

Evidence mounts that Saturn's icy moon harbors active hydrothermal vents, making it one of the hottest places to look for life beyond Earth.

The bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean midway between Bermuda and the Canary Islands must rank highly on any list of unlikely places to find a bustling city. Yet there, in the darkness that reigns nearly a kilometer below the sunlit surface, nature has built an undersea metropolis, a complex of limestone towers as tall as skyscrapers that is home to masses of snails, crabs and mussels.

The towers form as minerals precipitate out of warm alkaline water jetting from hydrothermal vents along the ocean floor. Biologists using submersibles and remote cameras found this exotic “Lost City” in the early 2000s and have been studying it ever since to learn how hydrothermal vents can sustain thriving ecosystems so far from the life-giving light of the sun. In the meantime, planetary scientists using the Cassini space probe have made a revolutionary series of related discoveries in the outer solar system, finding strong evidence that hydrothermal vents much like those of Lost City exist not only on Earth but also in the mysterious subsurface ocean of a small, icy Saturnian moon called Enceladus. Could life exist there, too?

 

> Article in Scientific American, Vol. 315, n°4, by Frank Postberg, Gabriel Tobie, Thorsten Dambeck on October 1, 2016.

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