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Can Life Exist on Moons?

Enceladus moon
(Image: NASA)

In the vastness of space there are huge galactic clusters, super-sized galaxies, massive black holes, and gigantic planets. Perhaps living on a relatively small planet impacts our take on moons. These natural satellites serve pretty important purposes, but we rarely think of them as important research destinations. Perhaps that will change when we start asking questions like can life exist on moons? Listen to this Question Your World radio report produced by the Science Museum of Virginia to find out.

Our beautiful celestial neighbor is our only moon. We get very excited about the search for planets in distant stellar systems. We consider the common science fiction stories of life coming from distant planets, talk about daring missions to explore exotic exo-planets, and so on. All those are fair thoughts since space is huge and super fascinating. Moons, however, also provide ample opportunities to let the imagination run wild. Perhaps we think this way because we live on a planet and naturally think of other planets as potential places to find life. Moons also have a lot to offer in this category and some new findings are getting the astronomy world excited about the future of moon-related research.

Our moon serves many purposes from regulating tides to shaping our wobble to being something that we look up at for inspiration and wonder. Our moon is a remarkable one for sure, but it’s in good company with the barrage of moons in our solar system. As we explore these moons we learn more and more about the potential and importance of these smaller, but amazing objects. Of the hundred plus moons in our solar system, one of them has especially caught the attention of astronomers and space fans around the world.

Enceladus, one of the icy moons of Saturn, is a pretty remarkable place. After nearly a decade’s worth of recognizance, the Cassini spacecraft has collected a myriad of incredible information. Scientists have been going through this over the years and have now determined that this moon is home to a giant subsurface ocean. There are geysers featured predominantly at the poles, but after compiling all of the information from the last ten years of robotic exploration it appears as though this moon could be filled with liquid gold, water. This announcement from researchers at NASA puts Enceladus as a front runner for cosmic exploration. After all, life as we know it is only possible due to water, so looking in other watery places quickly becomes a very compelling thought.

Saturn and its moons are over 890 million miles away from the sun. The heat and energy of the sun just would not be as powerful there when compared to the Earth. Regardless, there are other factors like gravitational pulls from massive Saturn that could keep the cores of the frozen worlds alive and well thus providing a source of energy in these dark and distant worlds. Scientists believe that life here on Earth may have started near hydrothermal vents located deep in the ocean, far from any vestige of sunlight. Could the same hold true for Enceladus and other icy but active moons in our solar system? No answers quite yet, but certainly worth a look.

After the declaration of a subsurface ocean NASA quickly shared visions of potential new missions all aimed at looking for the ingredients necessary for facilitating life. In fact a new mission idea called LIFE has been shared with the public too. LIFE stands for Like Investigation for Enceladus, catch name. For this mission NASA would fly a spacecraft through one of the geysers, collect samples, and return them to Earth for further research. This collection of liquid water vapor could include organic compounds that are needed to host life or maybe even have microbial life living in them. This mission would not only be the first of its kind, but would cost just 30% of the Mars Curiosity mission. Without having to land, drill, melt, or launch back to Earth would save tremendously on the costs. There are no set dates for these plans to be put into action, but that could easily change as our knowledge of the moons in the solar system grows.

From beautiful objects in the sky to tidal regulators, to potential homes for life, moons are a pretty amazing aspect to our universe. Usually we say “Reach for the stars” as a mantra for endless potentials, but reaching for the moons is not so bad either.