With all the debate about life on Mars, where to possibly find it and whether it even exists, it seems we almost forgot what the watery world beneath the frozen crust of Enceladus could be hiding.
Saturn’s icy moon could soon be probed by Breakthrough Initiatives, the brainchild of Stephen Hawking and billionaire tech investor Yuri Milner. Breakthrough’s mission is to begin the dawn of what Milner called “A New Space Age” at The Economist magazine’s inaugural global space summit. His teams focused on sub-projects such as Breakthrough Listen and Breakthrough Starshot will use advanced methods to search the cosmos for extraterrestrial life.
With plumes of water vapor that hint at liquid water and possibly even hydrothermal vents beneath all that ice, Enceladus is could be a more likely candidate for alien life-forms than the Red Planet.
Cassini (may it rest in peace) first discovered the vaporous plume shooting from Enceladus in 2005. The Saturn orbiter’s find was really the product of around a hundred geysers, and more in-depth observations observed that the waterworks most likely shoot to the surface from briny liquid water oceans deep below the ice. Astrobiologists won’t even need spacecraft to touch down and collect samples; it’s as if Enceladus is blasting potential liquid specimens into space.
The only obstacle in the way of Cassini finding any hypothetical alien microbes swimming around was that it wasn’t equipped with any instruments that could detect life.
Milner is just as excited to see what lurks in these mysterious waters. He and his team want to design a privately funded, cost-effective mission to Enceladus that can take off way ahead of what NASA’s New Frontiers program has planned. The space agency will take a decade and about $1 billion to launch its own more expensive life-seeking mission.
"How can we, for the first time ever, design and send — launch, actually — a privately funded interplanetary science mission?" Milner questioned at the summit. "That's what we're thinking about."
While Milner hasn’t yet revealed the timeline or price tag for this future mission, his team is trying to figure out the most efficient way to accomplish it. Is there a better chance of finding something in the watery depths of Enceladus than beneath the dust of Mars? Scientists have varying opinions, and while water may initially sound more promising than the—who knows what—beneath the seemingly barren surface of Mars, but the truth is still in the dark. Only time and advances in science will tell if there is some microorganism submerged beneath the ice of Enceladus lurking deep beneath the Martian dust.
Let’s hope Breakthrough comes up with a superprobe.