You just can't beat an alien ocean.
Today, at 11:22 a.m. Eastern time, NASA's Cassini orbiter will make a close swipe at Saturn's moon Enceladus -- a moon recently proven to be completely covered in ocean beneath its icy crust. The plan is for the spacecraft to dive into icy plumes that shoot out of the moon's frozen surface.
This particular flyby won't actually tell us whether or not Enceladus hosts marine life, microbial or otherwise. But by analyzing the chemistry of the plumes, scientists will be able to determine whether or not the world has hydrothermal activity -- in other words, whether or not water from the ocean infiltrates and interacts with the moon's rocky center. When these interactions happen on Earth, the result is warm water filled with life-supporting minerals.
If Cassini's cosmic dust analyzer (CDA) detects molecular hydrogen in the moon's plumes, hydrothermal activity is a given. The amount of molecular hydrogen, if there is any, will help determine just how active the moon really is.
Because of the potentially monumental nature of the findings, NASA scientists have warned that they may take several months to review their data before making any announcements.