Our Solar System’s 9 Extraterrestrial Oceans in One Surprising Infographic

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When scientists looked at Mars through early telescopes, they saw a fuzzy, rust-colored globe scored by mysterious dark gashes some believed were alien canals. Later, armed with sharper images, we scoffed at such naiveté. Mars is obviously dry as a bone and uninhabited. Now, with a great deal more information from rovers and satellites, we believe Mars was once wet. As for life? The jury's still out.

It shows how much we still have to learn (and are learning) about our solar system. Not too long ago, we only suspected one ocean of liquid water beyond Earth (on Europa). Now, thanks to robotic explorers, like NASA's Dawn and Cassini missions, we're finding evidence of oceans throughout the solar system.

Why do astronomers care so much about water? As far as we know, water (especially liquid water) and life go hand in hand. This is one reason our hunt for exoplanets focuses on the "Goldilocks zone." This orbital area is at just the right distance from a host star to allow liquid oceans like those found on Earth.

Geysers thought to originate in a subsurface sea erupt into space on Saturn's moon Enceladus.

Geysers thought to originate in a subsurface sea erupt into space on Saturn's moon Enceladus.

But life, at least the simplest forms, may survive in more environments than once believed. Indeed, even on Earth, life is ubiquitous, from scalding volcanic vents to frozen wastes. And we may not, as it turns out, need to travel light years to find extraterrestrial oceans or observe our first alien life forms. The proverbial backyard may suffice.

Scientists say there may be subsurface oceans on dwarf planet Ceres and a number of outer solar system moons, including Jupiter's Europa, Saturn's Enceladus, and Neptune's Triton. Some even suspect a subsurface ocean on Pluto. (NASA's New Horizons mission, due to reach Pluto in July, may help answer the question.)

The potential for so much liquid water in our solar system recently led NASA's chief scientist to declare, "I believe we are going to have strong indications of life beyond Earth in the next decade and definitive evidence in the next 10 to 20 years." She isn't expecting complex life. But news of even a few nearby alien microbes would expand the number of nooks and crannies life might inhabit throughout the galaxy.

And there's nothing quite like a good infographic to tie decades of research and exploration into a neat and pleasantly surprising bundle of education and perspective. Thank you NASA.


Infographic courtesy of NASA; Banner image courtesy of Shutterstock.com

Jason Dorrier

Jason is managing editor of Singularity Hub. He cut his teeth doing research and writing about finance and economics before moving on to science, technology, and the future. He is curious about pretty much everything, and sad he'll only ever know a tiny fraction of it all.

Discussion — 6 Responses

  • Quantium April 10, 2015 on 2:36 pm

    The discovery of any sort of life in these oceans will have a profound effect on religions around our world. However none of them have the potential for the life to spread to dry land, and there is unlikely to be any light present in the oceans either, which means no light based vision for any fish.

    In the unlikely event that any of these fish could develop any way of reasoning, they could never observe the rest of the universe in the same way as life that could venture out of an ocean into a gaseous atmosphere.

    Indeed they would be totally unaware of it.

    To them, our life would be dark, ie inconceivable.

    This begs the question as to what else is out there that is inconceivable to us.

    • Jarnail Singh Quantium April 11, 2015 on 11:35 am

      Brother if you think all religions are like Christianity or Islam you are very wrong.. I would incurage you to look into Sikhism.. We believe in infinity.. We believe there are uncountable earths, moons, suns, and Galaxys upon Galaxys.. Life sources that humans can’t see or understand …. smart ppl usually like our religion… Look up basics of Sikhi on YouTube…

    • fooze Quantium April 11, 2015 on 12:27 pm

      We Mormons (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) believe in life on other planets, so finding life out there would be more of a testament to our faith rather than a hindrance. I, for one, hope we find extraterrestrial life soon.

    • Rebecca Chuha Quantium April 19, 2015 on 2:44 pm

      “The discovery of any sort of life in these oceans will have a profound effect on religions around our world. “. Why? The discovery of extraterrestrial life would have no impact on my faith. God is not limited by our ignorance of the universe.

    • Cris Corcoran Quantium September 10, 2015 on 6:49 pm

      The Vatican is actually open to the possibility of life beyond earth. In fact they’re pretty sure that life beyond earth is a reality.

  • NathanielCalhoun April 12, 2015 on 9:47 pm

    Pretty sure that Mimas is the Death Star.