Under an icy crust, one of Saturn’s smallest moons harbors a pool of water equal to the largest lakes on Earth, adding to evidence that the frigid outlands of the solar system may be suitable for the chemistry of life. Robert Lee Hotz reports. Photo: AP.
Under an icy crust, one of Saturn’s smallest moons harbors a pool of water equal to the largest lakes on Earth, adding to evidence that the frigid outlands of the solar system may be suitable for the chemistry of life, planetary scientists in the U.S. and Italy said Thursday.
This illustration shows the possible interior of Enceladus—an icy outer shell and a rocky core with a water ocean sandwiched in between the two at southern latitudes.NASA/Associated Press
The subsurface lake on the moon Enceladus was revealed by gravity measurements made by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Cassini probe, which has been traveling among Saturn’s moons for the past decade. The scientists, who reported their work in Science, said the moon has a reservoir of water beneath a sheath of ice 18 to 24 miles thick.
“It is as large as or larger than Lake Superior,” said planetary scientist David Stevenson at the California Institute of Technology, who was part of the research team led by aerospace engineer Luciano Iess at the Sapienza University of Rome.
In 2005, the Cassini probe detected water vapor and ice spewing from vents near the moon’s South Pole, where the subsurface lake is located. The researchers believe the lake rests directly on a bed of silicate rocks that could leach organic chemicals into the water.
The “tiger stripes” on Enceladus are long fractures from which water-vapor jets are emitted. NASA/Associated Press
“It makes the interior of Enceladus an attractive place to look for life,” said astrobiologist Jonathan Lunine at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
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