Despite the fantasies science fiction has inspired for decades, the chances of humanity traveling beyond our own solar system anytime soon are slim at best. While that’s disappointing to anyone who grew up dreaming of warping to Alpha Centauri over summer vacation, ongoing discoveries continue to remind us that our own neck of the woods holds no shortage of wonders. Case in point: a new report which reveals that one of Saturn’s moons, Dione, has a thin layer of oxygen. Even more importantly, this discovery suggests that more of Jupiter and Saturn’s moons could be surrounded by oxygen, which makes the satellites that much more likely to hold the ingredients for life.
If life is discovered on one of the moons of Jupiter or Saturn, however, Dione won’t be the place. The moon’s layer of oxygen, discovered by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, isn’t even thick enough to be considered an atmosphere, instead being dubbed an “exosphere.” The research theorizes that the oxygen is released from the moon’s ice when Saturn’s radiation belts splits water into its component oxygen and hydrogen. This process could be happening on the other moons as well, such as Dione’s neighboring Enceladus. While Dione isn’t a viable candidate for life, Professor Andrew Coates of University College London said that “Some of the other moons have liquid oceans and so it is worth looking more closely at them for signs of life.”
Professor Coates and other scientists are lobbying the European Space Agency to send a new craft to explore the Jovian moons, explaining that they are “fascinating places to look for signs of life.”
The research was originally published in Geophysical Research Letters, as reported by BBC News. Header image courtesy NASA.gov.