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Only recently have space missions begun to solve this beguiling Solar System mystery--that a small number of distant moons have been successfully hiding, from the curious eyes of astronomers, life-sustaining liquid water beneath secretive shells of ice.
However, it was little Enceladus that gave astronomers their greatest shock. Even though the existence of Enceladus has been known since it was discovered by William Herschel in 1789, its enchantingly weird character was not fully appreciated until this century. Indeed, until the Voyagers flew past it, little was known about the moon. However, Enceladus has always been considered one of the more interesting members of Saturn's abundantly moonstruck family, for a number of very good reasons. First of all, it is amazingly bright. The quantity of sunlight that an object in our Solar System reflects back is termed its albedo, and this is calculated primarily by the color of the object's ground coating. The albedo of the dazzling Enceladus is almost a mirror-like 100%. Basically, this means that the surface of the little moon is richly covered with ice crystals--and that these crystals are regularly and frequently replenished. When the Voyagers flew over Enceladus in the 1980s, they found that the object was indeed abundantly coated with glittering ice. It was also being constantly, frequently repaved. Immense basins and valleys were filled with pristine white, fresh snow. Craters were cut in half--one side of the crater remaining a visible cavity pockmarking the moon's surface, and the other side completely buried in the bright, white snow. Remarkably, Enceladus circles Saturn within its so-called E ring, which is the widest of the planet's numerous rings. Just behind the moon is a readily-observed bulge within that ring, that astronomers determined was the result of the sparkling emission emanating from icy volcanoes (cryovolcanoes) that follow Enceladus wherever it wanders around its parent planet. The cryovolanoes studding Enceladus are responsible for the frequent repaving of its surface. In 2008, Cassini confirmed that the cryovolanic stream was composed of ordinary water, laced with carbon dioxide, potassium salts, carbon monoxide, and a plethora of other organic materials. Tidal squeezing, caused by Saturn and the nearby sister moons Dione and Tethys, keep the interior of Enceladus pleasantly warm, and its water in a liquid state--thus allowing the cryovolcanoes to keep spewing out their watery eruptions. The most enticing mystery, of course, is determining exactly how much water Enceladus holds. Is there merely a lake-sized body of water, or a sea, or a global ocean? The more water there is, the more it will circulate and churn--and the more Enceladus quivers and shakes, the more likely it is that it can brew up a bit of life.
Going to the moon again is causing far more controversy today than it could have back in the sixties. Some Americans doubt we can afford it and others are not sure they have seen the "giant leap for mankind" that the first moon shot promised. It depends on who you ask but don't dare ask me. I didn't think the first moon landing had much significance for reasons that few people share with me.
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Life as we know it depends on the presence of three ingredients: liquid water; a source of energy for metabolism; and the right chemical ingredients, mainly carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur. With this new discovery of the existence of hydrogen, in the tattle-tale plume shooting out from the surface of Enceladus, Cassini has revealed to the prying eyes of curious astronomers, that this small, icy moon has almost all of these ingredients important for habitability. At this point, Cassini has not detected the presence of phosphorus and sulfur in the hidden subsurface ocean of this distant small world, but many planetary scientists suspect that they will eventually be detected because the rocky core of Enceladus is believed to be similar to certain meteorities that contain these two critical elements.
But what truly makes Enceladus so remarkable is that its habitable zone can be observed with relative ease by astronomers. Dr. Porco told the press on March 27, 2012 that "It's erupting out into space where we can sample it. It sounds crazy but it could be snowing microbes on the surface of this little world. In the end, it's the most promising place I know of for an astrobiology search. We don't even need to go scratching around on the surface. We can fly through the plume and sample it. Or we can land on the surface, look up and stick our tongues out. And voila... we have what we came for."
Ganymede is the largest moon in our Solar System. Indeed, its impressive diameter of nearly 3,280 miles makes it almost as big as Mars! Astronomers have known since the 1990s that this frigidly cold moon, that circles around the gas-giant planet Jupiter, contains a hidden salty subsurface ocean of liquid water, sloshing around deep beneath its secretive shell of ice. However, in May 2014, planetary scientists announced that the situation may be somewhat more complicated--Ganymede's ocean might be organized like a multi-tiered sandwich, with ice and oceans stacked up in several layers, according to new NASA-funded research that models this enormous moon's composition.