Space is cold; deathly cold. But maybe not as cold as we once thought.
Beyond the orbit of Mars, past the asteroid belt — 888.2 million miles away from the sun in the shadow of Saturn’s gallant rings, there is an icy world. With a 160-mile radius, Enceladus is tiny — smaller than the Earth and our moon.
Covered in a miles-thick sheet of ice, its white coat makes the moon of Saturn one of the brightest objects in the solar system — reflecting most of the sun’s light which it encounters. But this tiny ice ball holds a secret — a subsurface ocean which could hold more water than in all the oceans of Earth combined. Scientists have known about the subsurface ocean for years by studying measurements taken by ground-based and space telescopes, as well as the man-made Cassini satellite, which is preparing to complete its 20-year mission orbiting Saturn in September.
During the course of its mission, Cassini observed something fascinating coming from Enceladus’ south pole — jets of frozen water vapor shooting into space from cracks in the moon’s icy crust. These geysers suggest the massive depth of the ocean and have kept scientists interested in the icy body as a place where life could potentially exist outside of the Earth.
Before Cassini plunges into Saturn’s atmosphere this fall, in what NASA is calling the mission’s “Grand Finale,” the tiny space probe has given humanity a gift from the heavens.
During a flyby of Enceladus, the space probe looked at the water ice spewing from the moon’s geysers and found something extraordinary — chemical evidence within the ice jets of rock-water interaction coming from the ocean below.
NASA scientists published their findings in May 2018 in the journal “Science,” but not before a big public announcement one month earlier.
On Earth, when the organic materials in water and rock interact with a heat source (i.e. energy) it makes the conditions right for life. On the bottom of our seas, hydro-thermal vents allow heat, energy and material from the Earth’s core to billow to the surface. Scientists believe the chemical signatures found in the water vapor jets coming from Enceladus indicates a similar process happening on that moon’s ocean floor.
Attached to Earth’s hydrothermal vents, microbes and tub worms use the heat and material coming from the vents as energy, as surface life does with the sun. Scientists now think this could also be possible on Enceladus. The ocean below the icy crust can support life. The prospect of life — potentially with an independent genesis of that from the life on Earth — clinging to existence on an ocean floor 888 million miles away is, to me, a moment to cry.
I cry in happiness, as the likelihood of us being truly alone slips even further into myth, but I also cry for the millions of people here on Earth who may never get to hear this revelation. People in war-ravaged countries without access to reliable media; humans who live under governments and dictators that don’t want their people to know the truth for fear that enlightenment will lead to dissent; their inability to learn they’re possibly not alone in the universe reminds me many human beings are isolated by their own realities.
So we have a responsibility. For those of us who can read this scientific finding and contemplate its meaning for our view of existence, we must foster this information, spread it, encourage our leaders to embrace it and push forward to the next discovery.
We need to transcend the triviality of our daily lives, if only for a moment, to ponder discoveries like Enceladus and say, “Wow. I wonder what else is out there, and what can we do to find it.” Those thoughts and the knowledge they pursue can change the world.
Contact Mike Mendenhall at firstname.lastname@example.org