The search for life beyond that of our planet is a complicated one. As it stands we only know of life arising in a particular way, one we can’t be sure isn’t unique in the universe. Still it’s the best model we have to go by and so when we search for life we look for all the same signs as we do for anywhere here on Earth. The one constant that binds all life on Earth is water and so that is why we search so fervently for it anywhere in the solar system. Surprisingly there are many places to find it but none are more spectacular than Saturn’s moon Enceladus.
Enceladus is a strange world, truly unlike anything else in our solar system. Its surface is incredibly young, mostly devoid of the numerous pockmarks that are common among other atmosphereless celestial bodies. This is because it’s in a constant state of change, it’s icy surface splitting and cracking open to reveal a new unsullied surface. Enceladus is like this because Saturn’s massive girth warps the tiny moon as it makes its orbit, generating incredible amounts of heat in the process. The same process is responsible for the amazing cryovolcanoes that dot its south pole, spewing forth tons of water per day into the depths of space. Whilst it’s easy to confirm that there’s liquid water somewhere on Enceladus (those cryovolcanoes aren’t magical water spouts) the question of where the reservoir is, if there even is one, has been the subject of much scientific study.
It has long been thought that Enceladus was host to a vast underground ocean although its specifics have always been up for debate. Unlike Europa which is thought to have a layer of liquid water underneath the ice (or a layer of “warmer” ice) the nature of Enceladus’ ocean was less clear. However data gathered by the Cassini spacecraft during its flybys of the moon in 2010~2012 show that it’s very likely that there’s a subsurface ocean below the area where the plumes originate. How they did this is quite incredible and showcases the amazing precision of the instruments we have up in space.
The measurements were made by using the radio communications between Cassini and Earth. These stay at a relatively fixed frequency and thus any changes in the craft’s speed will manifest themselves as slight Doppler Shifts in the frequency. This is the same principle behind how the sound of an approaching ambulance changes as it gets closer and farther away and it allows us to detect even the smallest changes in Cassini’s speed. As it turns out when Cassini flew over Enceladus’ south pole, which has a great big depression in it (meaning there’s less gravity at that point) the change in speed was far less than what we expected. What that means is there’s something more dense below the depression that’s making up for the lack of matter in the depression and, since water is more dense than ice, a giant hidden sea is a very plausible explanation.
There may be other explanations of course, like a giant deposit of heavy elements or just plain rock, however the fact that there’s water gushing up from that location gives more credence to the theory that it’s an ocean. The question now turns to nailing down some of the other variables, like how big it actually is and how the water gets to the surface, which I’m not entirely sure the Cassini craft is capable of determining. Still I wasn’t completely sure it was capable of doing this before today so I’m sure the scientists at NASA have some very interesting ideas about what comes next for Enceladus.