New models trying to infer the geology of potentially habitable moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn hint at surprisingly cool, geologically inactive worlds, the opposite of what a diverse alien ecosystem would need
Imagine a spaceship finally landing on Europa and slowly drilling into the ice. After weeks of very careful progress, it pierces the moon’s frozen shell and releases a small semi-autonomous submarine connected to the probe with an umbilical to ensure constant communication and a human taking over in case of an emergency. Much of the time, it will chart a course of its own since piloting it with an hour long delay between command and response would be less than ideal. It navigates through the salty ocean, shining its light on structures never before seen by a human eye, making its way deeper and further into the alien environment to find absolutely… nothing at all.
That’s the sad scenario proposed by a team of geologists who crunched the numbers on the four leading contenders to host alien life in our outer solar system: Europa, Ganymede, Titan, and Enceladus. According to their models, looking at gravity, the weight of water and ice on the rocks underneath, and the hardness of the rocks themselves, these moons would be more or less geologically dead. Without volcanoes or sulfur vents, there would be very little in terms of nutrient exchange and therefore, very little food and fuel for an alien ecosystem more complex than microbe colonies.
Of course, these results are a pretty serious departure from the hypotheses commonly held by planetary scientists that the gravity of gas giants cause tidal kneading inside their moons, citing Io as an example. According to the researchers’ model, only Enceladus would be a promising world to look for life, as evidenced by the plumes breaking through its icy crust, spraying organic material into space. The reason why the numbers are different, they say, is because its core is likely to be porous, meaning its ocean would be heated deep inside the moon, fueling geysers and churning organic matter while effectively making the little world a ball of soggy slush.
Since these findings are so different from what’s implied by observations, the researchers aren’t in a rush to publish them are are soliciting other scientists’ opinions to make sure they have a complete picture, and lead investigator Paul Byrne grumbled about his disappointment with what the models indicate. That said, while he’s hoping to be proven wrong, we shouldn’t forget that these are alien worlds and while we’ve spent decades studying them, our knowledge came in bursts. Simply put, we might know a fair bit but far from everything and disappointing surprises may lurk under their icy surfaces and subterranean oceans.
InSight’s recording of Martian winds isn’t what you’d hear if you were on the planet yourself
We live in a world where spacecraft are now routinely landing on other worlds and recording their sounds. Soviet probes aimed at Venus captured the thunder and howling winds on the volcanic world, giving us the first ever audio recording captured beyond Earth. We’ve been able to reconstruct the sound of alien rain on Saturn’s moon Titan. And now, for the first time, we get to hear the low hum of Martian winds sweeping down the planes. Except not exactly. You see, while InSight did in fact record a 10 to 15 mile per hour draft on Martian, the recording’s pitch had to be dialed up and its frequency sped up roughly 100 times for the human ear to make any real sense of it. But why is it so hard to hear them otherwise?
Unlike Venus or Titan, Mars has an extremely thin, barely there atmosphere stripped away by solar winds and with virtually no protection from its weak magnetosphere. It’s so thin and fragile that it might actually make the planet impossible to terraform if we ever wanted to try to make it even a little more like our world. Even hurricane force winds would feel like a gentle breeze because there’s just not enough air to impart any meaningful kinetic energy. So, if you were able to stand on the surface of Mars without a spacesuit, you’d probably hear and feel nothing, hence NASA had to help us out so we could get some appreciation of what they were able to record, which is still exquisitely haunting and beautiful in the end.
What about winds on other planets and moons?
With extremely thick atmospheres, you’d have absolutely no problem hearing and feeling the full force of the wind on worlds like Venus, Jupiter and the other gas giants, and of course, Titan. In the turbulent clouds of gas giants, the winds would never stop and without anything solid to act as a brake, gusts can howl at astonishing speeds. Neptune boasts the fastest winds in the solar system at 1,200 miles per hour, with Saturn not far behind as 1,118 mile per hour gales whip around its equator, making Jupiter seem almost inert by comparison with peak wind speeds of 384 miles per hour around its Great Red Spot.
Exactly how hard that wind would hit you will depend on your altitude in the gas giants’ vast atmospheres but analogies with the impacts of anything between a tornado and a freight train come to mind. At this point, we would consider the kinetic energy of winds on Venus and Titan because they have solid surfaces and very thick atmospheres, but on both worlds, a very odd and interesting thing happens as you descend through the clouds. That atmospheric thickness means that gasses are compressed as you get close and closer to the surface and winds very quickly die down under the mass of the air through which they have to move.
On Titan, winds reach maybe 2 miles per hour at ground level at their strongest. On Venus, they peak at 3 miles per hour. Still, because there’s so much mass in motion, they would feel like a stiff breeze of 20 to 25 miles per hour if we note that the gusts in question are strong enough to scatter small rocks and use the Beaufort scale to translate that into comparable conditions right here on Earth. You would certainly hear it as well, deeper and more ominous than you’d expect, with absolutely no need to increase the pitch or speed up frequency for your ear to know what’s happening.
So, in case you ever look at the night sky and wonder about how different other planets are from the one on which you’re standing, consider that something seemingly as simple as the sound of moving air can be vastly different from world to world, what you’d consider a gentle breeze could be imperceptible on one planet and blow an umbrella out of your hand on another, and that sometimes, to appreciate what our robotic probes are detecting, we need to specially process the data they’ve gathered so you can even start making sense of it.
The day before Cassini plunged into Saturn’s atmosphere, dramatically ending 13 years of Saturn exploration (and nearly two decades in space), I was sitting on a bench outside the Von Karman Visitor Center on the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory campus in La Cañada Flintridge with Linda Spilker, who served as the mission’s project scientist since before Cassini was launched.
“I feel very fortunate to be involved with Cassini since the very beginning … and just to be there, to be one of the first to see SOI [Saturn Orbital Insertion] with those first incredible ring pictures,” she told me. “I love being an explorer. I worked on the Voyager mission during the flybys of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune; that sort of whet my appetite and made me want more, to become an explorer to go to the Saturn system.”
Spilker especially loved studying Saturn’s rings, not only from a scientific perspective, but also because they are so beautiful, she continued. “It’s been a heartwarming experience,” she said.
But Cassini’s “legacy discovery,” said Spilker, was the revelation that the tiny icy moon of Enceladus is active, venting water vapor into space from powerful geysers emerging from the moon’s “tiger stripes” — four long fissures in the moon’s south pole. After multiple observations of these geysers and direct sampling of the water particles during flybys, Cassini deduced that the icy space marble hides a warm, salty ocean.
“What Cassini will be remembered for — its legacy discovery — will be the geysers coming from Enceladus with the ocean with the potential for life. It’s a paradigm shift.” — Linda J. Spilker, Cassini project scientist, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Sept. 14, 2017.
Alongside Jupiter’s moon Europa, Enceladus has become a prime destination for future explorations of life beyond Earth. Its subsurface ocean contains all the ingredients for life as we know it and Cassini was the mission that inadvertently discovered its biological potential. So now we know about this potential, Spilker is keen to see a dedicated life-hunting mission that could go to Enceladus, perhaps even landing on the surface to return samples to Earth.
As Enceladus is much smaller and less massive than Europa, its gravity is lower, meaning that landing on the surface is an easier task. Also, the radiation surrounding Saturn is much less aggressive than Jupiter’s radiation belts, meaning less radiation shielding is needed for spacecraft going to Saturn’s moons.
But if we ever send a surface mission to Enceladus (or any of the icy moons in the outer solar system), the planetary protection requirements will be extreme.
“If any life were found on these moons, it would be microbial,” said Larry Soderblom, an interdisciplinary scientist on the Cassini mission. “Some [terrestrial] bacteria are very resilient and can survive in hot acid-reducing environments. They can be tenacious. We have to make sure we don’t leave any of these kinds of Earthly bacteria on these promising moons.”
Soderblom has a unique perspective on solar system exploration. His career spans a huge number of NASA missions since the 1960’s, including Mariner 6, 7, 9, Viking, Voyager, Galileo, Magellan, Mars Pathfinder, the Mars Exploration Rovers, Deep Space 1, to name a few. While chatting to me under the shade of a tree on the JPL campus, he pointed out that the outer solar system was seen as a very different place over half a century ago.
“When I started to explore the solar system as a young guy just out of graduate school, our minds-eye view of the outer solar system was pretty bleak,” he remembered. “We expected lifeless, dead, battered moons with no geologic activity.”
After being involved with many outer solar system missions, this view has radically changed. Not only have we discovered entire oceans on Enceladus and Europa, there’s active volcanoes on Jupiter’s tortured moon Io, an atmosphere on Titan sporting its own methane cycle and surface lakes of methane and ethane. Other moons show hints of extensive subsurface oceans too, including distant Triton, a moon of Neptune. When NASA’s New Horizons flew past Pluto in 2015, the robotic spacecraft didn’t see a barren, dull rock as all the artistic impressions that came before seemed to suggest. The dwarf planet is a surprisingly dynamic place with a rich geologic history.
Sending our robotic emissaries to these distant and unforgiving places has revolutionized our understanding of the solar system and our place in it. Rather than the gas and ice giant moons being dull, barren and static, our exploration has revealed a rich bounty of geologic variety. Not only that, we’re almost spoilt for choices for our next giant leap of scientific discovery.
Missions like Cassini are essential for science. Before that spacecraft entered Saturn orbit 13 years ago, we had a very limited understanding of what the Saturnian system was all about. Now we can confidently say that there’s a tiny moon there with incredible biological potential — Enceladus truly is Cassini’s legacy discovery that will keep our imaginations alive until we land on the ice to explore its alien ocean.
For more on my trip to JPL, read my two HowStuffWorks articles:
It’s official, there’s a whole lot of nothing in Saturn’s innermost ring gap.
This blunt — and slightly mysterious — conclusion was reached when scientists studied Cassini data after the spacecraft’s first dive through the gas giant’s ring plane. At first blush, this might not sound so surprising; the 1,200-mile-wide gap between Saturn’s upper atmosphere and the innermost edge of its rings does appear like an empty place. But as the NASA spacecraft barreled through the gap on April 26, mission scientists expected Cassini to hit a few stray particles on its way through.
Instead, it hit nothing. Or, at least, far fewer particles than they predicted.
“The region between the rings and Saturn is ‘the big empty,’ apparently,” said Earl Maize, Cassini’s project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Cassini will stay the course, while the scientists work on the mystery of why the dust level is much lower than expected.”
Using Cassini’s Radio and Plasma Wave Science (RPWS), the scientists expected to detect multiple “cracks and pops” as the spacecraft shot through the gap. Instead, it picked up mainly signals from energetic charged particles buzzing in the planet’s magnetic field. When converted into an audio file, these signals make a whistling noise and this background whistle was expected to be drowned out by the ruckus of dust particles bouncing off the spacecraft’s body. But, as the following audio recording proves, very few pops and cracks of colliding debris were detected — it sounds more like an off-signal radio tuner:
Compare that with the commotion Cassini heard as it passed through the ring plane outside of Saturn’s rings on Dec. 18, 2016:
Now that is what it sounds like to get smacked by a blizzard of tiny particles at high speed.
“It was a bit disorienting — we weren’t hearing what we expected to hear,” said William Kurth, RPWS team lead at the University of Iowa, Iowa City. “I’ve listened to our data from the first dive several times and I can probably count on my hands the number of dust particle impacts I hear.”
From this first ring gap dive, NASA says Cassini likely only hit a handful of minute, 1 micron particles — particles no larger than those found in smoke. And that’s a bit weird.
As weird as it may be, the fact that the region of Cassini’s first ring dive is emptier than expected now allows mission scientists to carry out optimized science operations with the spacecraft’s instruments. On the first pass, Cassini’s dish-shaped high-gain antenna was used as a shield to protect the spacecraft as it made the dive. On its next ring dive, which is scheduled for Tuesday at 12:38 p.m. PT (3:38 p.m. ET), this precaution is evidently not needed and the spacecraft will be oriented to better view the rings as it flies through.
So there we have it, the first mysterious result of Cassini’s awesome Grand Finale! 21 ring dives to go…
UPDATE (1:30 a.m. PT): A firehose of Cassini data has opened up and raw images of the spacecraft’s approach to the ring plane are coming in at a rapid pace. You can see the raw images appear online at the same time Cassini’s science team sees them here. At time of writing (and without any scientific analysis) the images have been of Saturn’s polar vortex and various views of the planet’s upper atmosphere. It’s going to take some time for more detailed views to become available, but, wow, it’s exhilarating to see Cassini images arrive at such a rate. Here are a few:
Original: As NASA planned, just before midnight on Wednesday (April 26), the veteran Cassini spacecraft made radio contact with the Goldstone 70-meter antenna in California, part of the Deep Space Network (DSN), which communicates with missions in space. Within minutes, Goldstone was receiving data, meaning the spacecraft had not only survived its first ring dive of the “Grand Finale” phase of its mission, but that it was also transmitting science data from a region of space that we’ve never explored before.
“We did it! Cassini is in contact with Earth and sending back data after a successful dive through the gap between Saturn and its rings,” tweeted the official NASA Cassini account just after the DSN confirmed it was receiving telemetry.
“The gap between Saturn and its rings is no longer unexplored space – and we’re going back 21 times,” they added.
Around 22 hours prior to Cassini’s signal, the spacecraft made its daring transit through the gap between Saturn’s upper atmosphere and innermost ring after using the gravity of Titan on Friday (April 21) to send it on a ballistic trajectory through the ring plane. But during that time the spacecraft went silent, instead devoting resources to carrying out science observations during the dive.
Of course there was much anticipation for Cassini to “phone home” tonight and it did just that right on schedule and now we can look forward to another 21 dives through Saturn’s rings before Cassini burns up in the gas giant’s upper atmosphere on Sept. 15, ending its epic 13 year mission at the solar system’s ringed planet.
“No spacecraft has ever been this close to Saturn before. We could only rely on predictions, based on our experience with Saturn’s other rings, of what we thought this gap between the rings and Saturn would be like,” said Earl Maize, Cassini Project Manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., in a statement. “I am delighted to report that Cassini shot through the gap just as we planned and has come out the other side in excellent shape.”
So now we wait until images of this never-before-explored region of Saturn are released.
NASA’s Cassini mission sure has a knack for putting stuff into perspective — and this most recent view from Saturn orbit is no different. That dot in the center of the image isn’t a dud pixel in Cassini’s camera CCD. That’s us. All of us. Everyone.
To quote Carl Sagan:
“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives…”
Sagan wrote that passage in his book “Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space” when reflecting on the famous “Pale Blue Dot” image that was beamed back to Earth by NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft in 1990. That’s when the mission returned a profound view of our planet from a distance of 3.7 billion miles (or 40.5AU) as it was traveling through the solar system’s hinterlands, on its way to interstellar space. Since then, there’s been many versions of pale blue dots snapped by the armada of robotic missions around the solar system and Cassini has looked back at us on several occasions from its orbital perch.
Now, just before Cassini begins the final leg of its Saturnian odyssey, it has again spied Earth through a gap between the gas giant’s A ring (top) and F ring (bottom). In a cropped and enhanced version, our moon is even visible! The image is composed of many observations captured on April 12, stitched together as a mosaic when Saturn was 870 million miles (roughly 9.4AU) from Earth.
On April 20 (Friday), Cassini will make its final flyby of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, using its gravity to fling itself through Saturn’s ring plane (on April 26) between the innermost ring and the planet’s cloudy upper atmosphere, revealing a view that we’ve never before seen. For 22 orbits, Cassini will dive into this uncharted region, possibly revealing new things about Saturn’s evolution, what material its rings contain and incredibly intimate views of its atmosphere.
This daring maneuver will signal the beginning of the end for this historic mission, however. On Sept. 15, Cassini will be intentionally steered into Saturn’s atmosphere to burn up as a human-made meteor. It is low in fuel, so NASA wants to avoid the spacecraft from crashing into and contaminating one of Saturn’s potentially life-giving moons — Titan or Enceladus.
So, appreciate every image that is captured by Cassini over the coming weeks. The pictures will be like nothing we’ve seen before of the ringed gas giant, creating a very bittersweet phase of the spacecraft’s profound mission to Saturn.
A little frozen Saturn moon, with a diameter that could easily fit inside the state of New Mexico, holds some big promises for the possibility of finding basic alien life in our solar system.
Enceladus is often overshadowed by its larger distant cousin, Europa, which orbits Jupiter and the Jovian moon’s awesome potential has been widely publicized. But Enceladus has one thing Europa doesn’t — it has been visited very closely by a robotic space probe that could take a sniff of its famous water vapor plumes. And this week, there was much excitement about another facet of the moon’s complex subsurface chemistry, thanks to analysis carried out on data gathered by NASA’s Cassini mission.
But before we get into why this new discovery is so cool, let’s take a very quick look at the other signs of Enceladus’ life-giving potential.
The Cocktail Of Life
Being living, breathing creatures on a habitable planet, it may not come as a surprise to you that for biology to evolve, it needs a few basic ingredients. Liquid water is a definite requirement, of course. Heat also helps. Throw some organic chemistry into the mix and we have a party.
Enceladus, however, is a tiny icy globe, there’s no sign of liquid water on its surface. But when Cassini arrived at Saturn in 2004, Enceladus revealed some of its best-kept secrets. Firstly, it may be a smooth ice ball, but the moon has a large quantity of water under its surface. This water even escapes as geysers, through fissures in its icy crust, producing stunning plumes that eject material hundreds of miles high and into Saturn’s rings.
Before Cassini was launched to Saturn, we had little clue about Enceladus’ watery potential — though this finding explained why Enceladus appeared so bright and how it contributes material to Saturn’s E-ring. Fortunately, the spacecraft has an instrument on board — a mass spectrometer — that could be used to “taste” the watery goodness of these plumes. During its Enceladus flybys, Cassini was able to fly through the plumes, revealing a surprisingly rich chemical cocktail — including a high concentration of organic chemistry.
It’s as if all the building blocks of life have been thrown into a small icy cocoon, shaken up and gently heated from within.
Now, another fascinating discovery has been made. Further analysis of Cassini data from its last 2015 plume fly-through, molecular hydrogen has been detected and planetary scientists are more than a little excited to add this to Enceladus’ habitable repertoire.
Deep In The Enceladus Abyss
“Hydrogen is a source of chemical energy for microbes that live in the Earth’s oceans near hydrothermal vents,” said Hunter Waite, principal investigator of Cassini’s Ion Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS) at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), in a statement on Thursday (April 13). “Our results indicate the same chemical energy source is present in the ocean of Enceladus.”
This hydrogen could be a byproduct of chemical reactions going on between the moon’s rocky core and the warm water surrounding it. And there’s a lot of hydrogen gas being vented, probably enough to sustain basic lifeforms deep in the Enceladus abyss.
“The amount of molecular hydrogen we detected is high enough to support microbes similar to those that live near hydrothermal vents on Earth,” added co-author Christopher Glein, who specializes in extraterrestrial chemical oceanography, also of SwRI. “If similar organisms are present in Enceladus, they could ‘burn’ the hydrogen to obtain energy for chemosynthesis, which could conceivably serve as a foundation for a larger ecosystem.”
Yes, we’re talking alien microbes. (Also, “extraterrestrial chemical oceanography” — oceans on other worlds! — is one hell of a mind-blowing topic to specialize in, just sayin’.) And did he mention “larger ecosystem”? Why yes! Yes he did.
So, in short, we know Enceladus has a liquid water ocean. We know that it has an internal heat source (hence the liquid oceans). We also know there’s organic chemistry. And now there’s solid hints that there’s water-rock interactions going on that terrestrial microbes living at Earth’s ocean vents like to munch on. If that’s not a huge, blinking neon sign pointing at Enceladus, saying: “We need a surface mission here!” I don’t know what is.
Although the researchers are keen to emphasize that alien microbes have not been found (because Cassini isn’t capable of looking for life), the universe has given us a moon-sized Petri dish where an “ecosystem” may have taken hold. All the ingredients are there, wouldn’t it be cool to find out if Enceladus could be another place in the solar system where life may be hanging out?
Never before has a space probe come so close to the pint-sized moon embedded in Saturn’s rings — and when NASA’s Cassini buzzed Pan, the spacecraft revealed what a strange moon it really is.
This is Pan, a 22 mile-wide moon that scoots through Saturn’s rings, orbiting the gas giant once every 13.8 hours. And it’s weird.
Resembling a giant ravioli or some kind of “flying saucer” from a classic alien invasion sci-fi comic, Pan is known as a “shepherd moon” occupying the so-called Encke Gap inside Saturn’s A Ring. This gap is largely free of particles and it has become Pan’s job to hoover up any stray material — the moon’s slight gravity pulls particles onto its surface and scatters others back out into the ring system. This gravitational disturbance creates waves that ripple through the ring material, propagating for hundreds of miles.
On March 7, NASA’s Cassini mission came within 15,268 miles of Pan, revealing incredible detail in the moon’s strange surface. It’s thought that its characteristic equatorial ridge (a trait it shares with another Saturn moon Atlas) is caused by the gradual accumulation of ring material throughout the moon’s formation and with these new observations, scientists will be able to better understand how Pan came to be.
As Cassini rapidly approaches the end of its mission, eventually orbiting through Saturn’s ring plane as a part of its “Grand Finale,” we can expect more of these striking views from orbit before the veteran probe is steered into Saturn’s atmosphere in September, bringing its historic mission to an end.
I do admit, I’m terrible with names, but I never forget a face. In this case, the face I didn’t forget was a little moon orbiting Saturn (it’s the one that looks like the Death Star from Star Wars). However, after seeing this photo, I doubt I’ll ever forget Tethys’ name again.
In a photo snapped by the awesome Cassini Equinox mission back in November, the little moon with characteristic impact crater carved into its crust can be seen to be drifting behind Titan. Tethys only disappears for 18 minutes behind Titan’s thick atmosphere, but it was enough to ignite my interest in the icy world.
It’s strange how a simple photograph and perfect timing can ignite the imagination, as I doubt “just another moon shot” would have the same effect. No, this is a moon drifting in front of another moon as seen by a veteran spaceship orbiting the second largest planet in the solar system millions of miles away. Sometimes words are insufficient to describe the enormity of what we are doing in space.
So, sod the words and look at this, you won’t be disappointed: