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Astronomers believe they have found proof that Saturn's icy moon Enceladus hosts a deep saltwater ocean. Scientists say that of such an ocean exists, it may be the most likely place in the solar system, rather than on Mars, to find life elsewhere besides Earth.
LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Astronomers studying gravitational measurements of Enceladus say they have found evidence that a deep saltwater ocean may exist under the thick icy surface of Saturn's pearl-white moon.
The measurements were made with the Cassini space probe which has been looping through the Saturn system since 2004. The measurements suggest that a 10km-deep ocean of water exists deep under the ice on Enceladus.
St. Dominic, the patron saint of astronomers.
Gravitational measurements allow scientists to map the interior of planets and moons because different materials of varying densities have an influence on gravity. As the probe swept past the moon on several passes, scientists noticed that it was being slowed or sped up at different times. Measuring this subtle shift in radio waves allowed them to map the interior of the moon.
Scientists also know that water exists on Enceladus because in 2005 they captured jets of water vapor spewing from the moon's south pole.
The jets of water and the gravitational mapping results suggests that an ocean of water may exist beneath the ice, heated by underwater volcanism. The gravitational squeeze exerted on Enceladus as it orbits Saturn keeps the interior of the moon hot which means temperatures beneath the ice are warm enough to allow liquid water to exist.
Enceladus joins Europa, the icy moon of Jupiter as another body with liquid water, yet Enceladus has one distinctive feature that Europa lacks, that is the water on Enceladus is rich with organic molecules.
Wherever water exists, there too could be life. Water in the essential medium, so far as biologists know, where life can evolve. Scientists are keen to answer the question of how common - or rare life is in the universe. It is very likely that the ocean on Enceladus is sterile. Yet being rich in organic molecules, the kind thought to be present before life was created on Earth, makes Enceladus the best possible candidate for life within the solar system, aside from Earth itself.
The next step will be to plan a mission to the icy moon. Such planning could easily take a decade or more. Still, the recent discovery moves Enceladus to the front of the pack for priority simply because scientists are very anxious to know.
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