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STScI Astrobiology Lecture Series

The Search for Evidence of Life in the Subsurface Ocean of Enceladus

Presented by: Alfonso F. Davila (NASA Ames Research Center, Exobiology Branch)
Category: Science Colloquia   Duration: 1 hour and 15 minutes   Broadcast date: February 02, 2018
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Are we alone in the Universe? The search for life beyond Earth is the most compelling scientific question of our time; a positive detection would be one of the most profound discoveries ever made by humanity. Chemical evidence of habitable conditions and organic compounds make Saturn's moon Enceladus a promising lead in the search for life beyond Earth. What makes Enceladus truly unique is the confirmed and sustained plume of water ice, gases, and salts ejected into space through a system of vents and fissures in the moon’s South Polar Terrain. The composition of the plume points to a level of organic chemical evolution never before observed outside the Earth; and the plume itself makes ocean materials accessible to an orbiting spacecraft at significantly lower risk than landing. In this lecture I will review the clues obtained by the Cassini mission, which lead to the astonishing conclusion that there is a habitable ocean beneath the moon’s icy crust. I will also discuss a mission strategy to search for evidence of life in the ocean through the analysis of materials sampled from the plume, as well as some of the key technological hurdles that such a mission would have to face.