This is What a Robotic Explorer Might See When it Reaches Europa’s Oceans

Mounds of snow-like ice under an ice shelf. ©Helen Glazer, 2015 from the project Walking in Antarctica.

For decades, evidence has been mounting that beneath the icy crust of Jupiter’s moon Europa, a vast ocean exists that could possibly host microbial life. As scientists prepare to send the Europa Clipper mission to orbit the Jupiter system, they are trying to learn more about the subsurface ocean and the ice that encompasses the moon.

One way to study Europa is to look at similar environments here on Earth. Scientists say that conditions found under Earth’s Antarctic ice shelf provides an analog to Europa’s subsurface ocean and can help them determine how the moon’s ice shell accretes and grows.

A new study published in the journal Astrobiology looked at a unique phenomenon in the Antarctic ocean called underwater snow. This is where ice floats upwards onto the bottom of the ice shelf and attaches in fluffy-looking mounds. This helps to replenish the ice shelf. The study infers that the same phenomenon is likely true for Jupiter’s moon, and may play a role in building and replenishing its exterior ice shell.

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Solar System Tours: Plumes of Enceladus

“We’re coming up on the plumes!” The co-pilot announced over the intercom.

The other six passengers and I took our positions along the viewing cupola at the belly of the “Tour Bus”, and each grabbed on to the hand and foot restraints to keep ourselves in place in the weightlessness. We were traveling about 400 km (250 miles) above the south pole of Enceladus looking down at the highly reflective surface that was so bright it took about a minute for our eyes to adjust. We all remained silent, and my heart was pounding in anticipation. The Tour Bus silently coasted for a few more minutes as we took in the breathtaking view of Saturn’s sixth-largest moon.

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We Now Understand Why Enceladus has ‘Tiger Stripe’ Cracks at its Southern Pole

The "tiger stripes" of Enceladus - - as pictured by the Cassini space probe. Credit: NASA/JPL/ESA

One of the biggest surprises of the 13-year Cassini mission came in Enceladus, a tiny moon with active geysers at its south pole. At only about 504 kilometers (313 miles) in diameter, the bright and ice-covered Enceladus should be too small and too far from the Sun to be active. Instead, this little moon is one of the most geologically dynamic objects in the Solar System.

A new study has modeled how this activity could be taking place, and what mechanism might power the geysers spewing from ‘tiger stripe’ fissures. While previous studies have indicated some type of unknown internal heat source on Enceladus, the new study infers no heat source would be necessary.

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Cassini Saw Methane in Enceladus’ Plumes. Scientists Don’t Know How it Could be There Without Life

Icy water vapor geysers erupting from fissures on Enceladus. Credit: NASA/JPL

Even though the Cassini mission at Saturn ended nearly four years ago, data from the spacecraft still keeps scientists busy. And the latest research using Cassini’s wealth of data might be the most enticing yet.

Researchers say they’ve detected methane in the plumes of Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus. The process for how the methane is produced is not known at this time, but the study suggests that the surprisingly large amount of methane found are likely coming from activity at hydrothermal vents present on Enceladus’s interior seafloor. These vents could be very similar those found in Earth’s oceans, where microorganisms live, feed on the energy from the vents and produce methane in a process called methanogenesis.

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How Salty is Enceladus’ Ocean Under the ice?

An icy satellite of Saturn, Enceladus, has been a subject of increasing interest in recent years since Cassini captured jets of water and other material being ejected out of the south pole of the moon.  One particularly tantalizing hypothesis supported by the sample composition is that there might be life in the oceans under the ice shells of Enceladus. To evaluate Enceladus’ habitability and to figure out the best way to probe this icy moon, scientists need to better understand the chemical composition and dynamics of Enceladus’ ocean.

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The Interior of Enceladus Looks Really Great for Supporting Life

Scientists recently determined that a certain strain of Earth bacteria could thrive under conditions found on Enceladus. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

When NASA’s Voyager spacecraft visited Saturn’s moon Enceladus, they found a body with young, reflective, icy surface features. Some parts of the surface were older and marked with craters, but the rest had clearly been resurfaced. It was clear evidence that Enceladus was geologically active. The moon is also close to Saturn’s E-ring, and scientists think Enceladus might be the source of the material in that ring, further indicating geological activity.

Since then, we’ve learned a lot more about the frigid moon. It almost certainly has a warm and salty subsurface ocean below its icy exterior, making it a prime target in the search for life. The Cassini spacecraft detected molecular hydrogen—a potential food source for microbes—in plumes coming from Enceladus’ subsurface ocean, and that energized the conversation around the moon’s potential to host life.

Now a new paper uses modelling to understand Enceladus’ chemistry better. The team of researchers behind it says that the subsurface ocean may contain a variety of chemicals that could support a diverse community of microbes.

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Why Does Enceladus Have Stripes at its South Pole?

Scientists recently determined that a certain strain of Earth bacteria could thrive under conditions found on Enceladus. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Saturn’s moon Enceladus has captivating scientists ever since the Voyager 2 mission passed through the system in 1981. The mystery has only deepened since the arrival of the Cassini probe in 2004, which included the discovery of four parallel, linear fissures around the southern polar region. These features were nicknamed “Tiger Stripes” because of their appearance and the way they stand out from the rest of the surface.

Since their discovery, scientists have attempted to answer what these are and what created them in the first place. Thankfully, new research led by the Carnegie Institute of Science has revealed the physics governing these fissures. This includes how they are related to the moon’s plume activity, why they appear around Enceladus’ south pole, and why other bodies don’t have similar features.

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Enceladus is Filled with Tasty Food for Bacteria

Credit: NASA

As soon as the Cassini-Huygens mission arrived the Saturn system in 2004, it began to send back a number of startling discoveries. One of the biggest was the discovery of plume activity around the southern polar region of Saturn’s moon Enceladus’, which appears to be the result of geothermal activity and an ocean in the moon’s interior. This naturally gave rise to a debate about whether or not this interior ocean could support life.

Since then, multiple studies have been conducted to get a better idea of just how likely it is that life exists inside Enceladus. The latest comes from the University of Washington’s Department of Earth and Space Sciences (ESS), which shows that concentrations of carbon dioxide, hydrogen and methane in Enceladus’ interior ocean (as well as its pH levels) are more conducive to life than previously thought.

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