Good morning, humans. We’re talking about space. Saddle up.
Water. Water is, to our best knowledge, THE key ingredient to life. Where there is life, on Earth, there is water. Where there is the most lush life, there is warm water.
In our search to answer the world’s most intriguing question — are we alone in the universe — we therefore begin with water. We search for water, liquid water, on other giant rocks (planets, moons, asteroids), to first determine if life could exist there. Mars, we know, held oceans and rivers of water way back in the day. Like billions of years ago.
This week, scientists have confirmed two new locations in our Solar System — two moons — that contain watery oceans.
Saturn has 62 moons (yes, that’s 62 times Earth’s number of moons). One of those moons, Enceladus, is covered by a 25-mile thick sheet of ice. In 2005, the Cassini satellite — which launched in 1997 and has been orbiting Saturn for over a decade — observed what appeared to be plumes of water vapor coming through the ice. This suggested a warm, watery ocean could be beneath the icy surface.
With that same Cassini satellite, scientists this week found tiny grains of rock that came from hydrothermal vents in, what must be, Enceladus’ ocean.
A day after the Enceladus news broke, NASA announced confirmation of a watery ocean on the Solar System’s biggest moon, Jupiter’s Ganymede. The existence of this ocean has been speculated since the 1970s, but what not able to be confirmed until this week. NASA observed the moon’s aurorae for 7 hours with the highly powerful Hubble telescope. This observation showed a rocking back and forth of the aurorae of about 2 degrees; if there were no water, that difference would be about 6 degrees.
Thus, the existence of Ganymede’s ocean was confirmed.
Unfortunately, Ganymede is not believed to be a hotspot to search for life. The ocean is about 100 miles beneath the surface and likely covered, even at that depth, by thick ice, which also separates different layers of the ocean. This means it would lack a hydrothermal system, like the one on Enceladus, which makes life significantly less likely.
Space is fascinating. The enormity of it, the distances, the mysteriousness — it’s truly fascinating. Every astronomer on the planet will tell you that the numbers make it impossible for us to be alone in the universe. Someday, we will find it.
These confirmations are just another step in that pursuit. It’s a tedious process for which NASA takes a lot of heat. But, in my expert, somewhat intelligent, extremely immature opinion, worth it. Exploration is awesome, and I better be here when we find life.
If I’m not, someone please roll over to my gravestone, bring a six pack of Bud Light, and tell me all about the space life. Please and thank you.