Antarctic analogs for Enceladus
Friday, 19 December 2014: 8:30 AM
Enceladus is a new world for Astrobiology. The Cassini discovery of the icy plume emanating from the South Polar region indicates an active world, where detection of water, organics, sodium, and nano-particle silica in the plume strongly suggests that the source is a subsurface salty ocean reservoir. Recent gravity data from Cassini confirms the presence of a regional sea extending north to 50°S. An ocean habitat under a thick ice cover is perhaps a recurring theme in the Outer Solar System, but what makes Enceladus unique is that the plume jetting out into space is carrying samples of this ocean. Therefore, through the study of Enceladus’ plumes we can gain new insights not only of a possible habitable world in the Solar Systems, but also about the formation and evolution of other icy-satellites. Cassini has been able to fly through this plume – effectively sampling the ocean. It is time to plan for future missions that do more detailed analyses, possibly return samples back to Earth and search for evidence of life. To help prepare for such missions, the need for earth-based analog environments is essential for logistical, methodological (life detection) and theoretical development. We have undertaken studies of two terrestrial environments that are close analogs to Enceladus’ ocean: Lake Vida and Lake Untersee – two ice-sealed Antarctic lakes that represent physical, chemical and possibly biological analogs for Enceladus. By studying the diverse biology and physical and chemical constraints to life in these two unique lakes we will begin to understand the potential habitability of Enceladus and other icy moons, including possible sources of nutrients and energy, which together with liquid water are the key ingredients for life. Analog research such as this will also enable us to develop and test new strategies to search for evidence of life on Enceladus.