Happy 230th Birthday, Enceladus, Our Solar System’s Greatest Hope For Life Beyond Earth
“It is still a complete unknown whether Earth is the only world in the Solar System to house any form of life: past or present. Venus and Mars may have been Earth-like for a billion years or more, and life could have arisen there early on. Frozen worlds with subsurface oceans, like Enceladus, Europa, Triton or Pluto, are completely different from Earth’s present environment, but have the same raw ingredients that could potentially lead to life as well.
Are water, energy, and the right molecules all we need for life to arise? Finding even the most basic organisms (or even the precursor components of organisms) anyplace else in the Universe would lead to a scientific revolution. A single discovered cell in the geysers of Enceladus would be the most momentous discovery of the 21st century. With the recent demise of Cassini, on the 230th anniversary of Enceladus’ discovery, the possibility of finding the incredible compels us to go back. May we be bold enough to make it so.”
On this date in 1789, William Herschel, armed with the most powerful telescope known to humanity at the time (you can get a lot of grant money when you discover the planet Uranus and name it after the King), discovered a relatively small moon of Saturn just 500 kilometers across: Enceladus. For some 200 years, Enceladus was never seen as more than a single pixel across, until the Voyager probes flew by it. What they revealed was a remarkable, unique world in all the Solar System. Now that the Cassini mission is complete, we can look back at all we know about this world, and all the signs point to a remarkable story: there’s a subsurface ocean, possibly suitable as a home for undersea life.