Startling Discovery of Young Ocean Beneath Icy Shell of Saturn’s Tiny Moon

Saturn Moon Mimas

Mimas is the smallest and innermost of Saturn’s major moons. Its newly discovered young ocean opens new avenues for exploring life’s potential beyond Earth. Credit: Frédéric Durillon, Animea Studio | Observatoire de Paris – PSL, IMCCE

Researchers have discovered a global ocean of liquid water beneath the surface of Mimas, one of Saturn’s smallest moons. This discovery, made possible by data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, highlights Mimas as a crucial site for studying the origins of life, providing insights into ocean formation and the potential for life in our Solar System.

Hidden beneath the heavily cratered surface of Mimas, one of Saturn’s smallest moons, lies a secret: a global ocean of liquid water. This astonishing discovery, led by Dr. Valéry Lainey of the Observatoire de Paris-PSL and published on February 7 in the journal Nature, reveals a “young” ocean formed just 5 to 15 million years ago, making Mimas a prime target for studying the origins of life in our Solar System.

Mimas’s Unique Ocean

“Mimas is a small moon, only about 400 kilometers in diameter, and its heavily cratered surface gave no hint of the hidden ocean beneath,” says Dr. Nick Cooper, a co-author of the study and Honorary Research Fellow in the Astronomy Unit of the School of Physical and Chemical Sciences at Queen Mary University of London. “This discovery adds Mimas to an exclusive club of moons with internal oceans, including Enceladus and Europa, but with a unique difference: its ocean is remarkably young, estimated to be only 5 to 15 million years old.”

Saturn Moons Enceladus Mimas

Similar in size and orbiting at a similar distance around Saturn, the moons Enceladus (left, diameter approx. 500 km) and Mimas (right, diameter approx. 400 km) have very different surfaces, seemingly reflecting incompatible internal conditions. And yet, both harbor an ocean of liquid water beneath their surfaces. Credit: Frédéric Durillon, Animea Studio | Observatoire de Paris – PSL, IMCCE

Insights Into Ocean Formation

This young age, determined through detailed analysis of Mimas’s tidal interactions with Saturn, suggests the ocean formed recently, based on the discovery of an unexpected irregularity in its orbit. As a result, Mimas provides a unique window into the early stages of ocean formation and the potential for life to emerge.

“The existence of a recently formed liquid water ocean makes Mimas a prime candidate for study, for researchers investigating the origin of life,” explains Dr. Cooper. The discovery was made possible by analyzing data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which meticulously studied Saturn and its moons for over a decade. By closely examining the subtle changes in Mimas’s orbit, the researchers were able to infer the presence of a hidden ocean and estimate its size and depth.

Collaboration and Implications

Dr. Cooper continues: “This has been a great team effort, with colleagues from five different institutions and three different countries coming together under the leadership of Dr. Valéry Lainey to unlock another fascinating and unexpected feature of the Saturn system, using data from the Cassini mission.”

The discovery of Mimas’s young ocean has significant implications for our understanding of the potential for life beyond Earth. It suggests that even small, seemingly inactive moons can harbor hidden oceans capable of supporting life-essential conditions. This opens up exciting new avenues for future exploration, potentially leading us closer to answering the age-old question: are we alone in the universe?

Reference: “A recently formed ocean inside Saturn’s moon Mimas” by V. Lainey, N. Rambaux, G. Tobie, N. Cooper, Q. Zhang, B. Noyelles and K. Baillié, 7 February 2024, Nature.
DOI: 10.1038/s41586-023-06975-9

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