School: West Windsor Plainsboro High School South, Princeton Junction, NJ
Teacher: Danielle Bugge
Throughout scientific history, researchers have studied space to better understand processes that occur on Earth. With recent research of Saturn’s moons, it is evident that further exploration of these extraterrestrial bodies is necessary for the progression of science. One moon, Enceladus, demonstrates unique characteristics that may allow for life. If we would like to better understand habitable environments, it is essential that NASA uses its resources towards the study of Enceladus.
One of the most intriguing characteristics of Enceladus is that it may have a quality essential to life--water. Enceladus is one of the brightest objects in the solar system because it reflects 90% of sunlight. Although its surface may be deceiving, underneath lies an ocean. Oceans are crucial for life, especially on Earth where they absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. 50-80% of life on Earth is in the ocean, suggesting that Enceladus could be habitable due to its vast amount of water.
Now that we know oceans provide an environment crucial for life, they are a key focus in our further search for a habitable environment. Scientists are confident hydrothermal vents on Enceladus’ seafloor are releasing molecular hydrogen. After exploration of the Galapagos Rift in 1977 - the first discovery of hydrothermal vents - scientists discovered that, “bacteria were converting the toxic vent minerals into usable forms of energy...providing food for other vent organisms” (National Geographic). This discovery now translates to our search for extraterrestrial life: if vents can be a hub for life on Earth, they may be a hub for life elsewhere. If we want to expand our understanding of life, studying Enceladus is our best option.
Through past missions there has been evidence of carbon rich molecules ejected from hydrothermal vents. These organic compounds are not just simple carbon structures, as 15-carbon long compounds have been detected. According to author Frank Postberg, a planetary scientist, “the findings are the first detection of complex organic molecules coming from an extraterrestrial water world”. With organic molecules emitted by its ocean, this moon is the only other extraterrestrial body to have all basic requirements to sustain life. Southwest Research institute’s Dr. Christopher Glein, a space scientist specializing in extraterritorial oceanography, highlights the value of another research mission to Enceladus by saying "A future spacecraft could fly through the plume of Enceladus, and analyze those complex organic molecules...to help us determine how they were made”.
Although we can never be certain life will be discovered, further exploration of Enceladus will give us a deeper understanding of characteristics necessary to sustain life. According to Linda Spilker, Cassini Project Scientist of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, “If life is eventually discovered in Enceladus’ ocean by a mission after Cassini, then our Enceladus discoveries will have been among the top discoveries for all planetary missions.” It is imperative to send another spacecraft to Enceladus to determine if the conditions are habitable for organisms to live and if life does indeed exist on this ice covered moon.