The Science Case for a Return to Enceladus

Morgan L. Cable, Carolyn Porco, Christopher R. Glein, Christopher R. German, Shannon M. MacKenzie, Marc Neveu, Tori M. Hoehler, Amy E. Hofmann, Amanda R. Hendrix, Jennifer Eigenbrode, Frank Postberg, Linda J. Spilker, Alfred McEwen, Nozair Khawaja, J. Hunter Waite, Peter Wurz, Jörn Helbert, Ariel Anbar, Jean Pierre De Vera, Jorge Núñez

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations

Abstract

The plume of Enceladus is unique in the solar system in providing direct access to fresh material from an extraterrestrial subsurface ocean. The Cassini Mission, though not specifically designed for it, was able to take advantage of the plume to conduct the best characterization to date of an extraterrestrial ocean. Evidence gathered from multiple instruments points to a global, subsurface liquid water ocean rich in salts and organic compounds, with water-rock interactions occurring presumably in hydrothermal systems at or below the moon's sea floor. Meeting the criteria of "extended regions of liquid water, conditions favorable for the assembly of complex organic molecules, and energy source(s) to sustain metabolism," the ocean of Enceladus can therefore be considered habitable. It is also the only confirmed place beyond the Earth where we can easily sample fresh material from a demonstrably habitable environment without the complications of digging or drilling. The next step is to investigate whether Enceladus' ocean is actually inhabited. Here, we summarize the evidence for Enceladus' ocean and its habitability, identify constraints and outstanding questions on the detectability of life within its ocean, and recommend a return to Enceladus with a dedicated search-for-life mission (or missions) 2021. The Author(s). Published by the American Astronomical Society.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number132
JournalPlanetary Science Journal
Volume2
Issue number4
DOIs
StatePublished - Aug 2021
Externally publishedYes

Keywords

  • Astrobiology (74)
  • Biosignatures (2018)
  • Ocean planets (1151)
  • Saturnian satellites (1427)

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science
  • Geophysics

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