Enceladus © Kevin Gill
Enceladus © Kevin Gill

Iceland lake re-opens alien life search

New strains of bacteria in a lake hidden under an Icelandic glacier has revealed how life might thrive in sub-surface oceans on the moons of Saturn and Jupiter.

Skaftárkatlar Lake lies beneath an ice sheet 300 metres thick with waters that have likely never been exposed to the Sun. As a result, it is one of the best places on Earth to study how life might evolve in the isolation of a subterranean ocean on one of these moons.

Dr Gregory Farrant of Matís, a governmental research institute based in Iceland, said: “Our preliminary results reveal new branches of life here. It’s tricky to analyse the DNA of microbes that are totally new to science because there’s no prior knowledge about them. We’re dealing with a lot of unknowns.”

Farrant is the lead investigator on an EU-funded research project called AstroLakes. His work is predicated on the idea that underground oceans represent our best chance of finding life on other planets.

Saturn’s moon Enceladus has a hidden ocean beneath its icy surface, which could be less than five kilometres deep at the poles, which is a distance similar to the ice caps on Earth.

Other moons, such as Saturn’s Titan or Jupiter’s Europa, may also harbour bacteria like that found in Skaftárkatlar, and such research projects contribute more base reference points for future space missions to find out.

NASA is currently considering a trip to Enceladus in a proposed mission called ‘Enceladus Life Finder’, and to Europa in its ‘Europa Clipper’ mission.