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Is There Life on Saturn?

Exobiologists looking for extraterrestrial life focus on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, which is almost certainly the best candidate in our solar system, but it isn’t completely impossible that the planet Saturn itself may harbor life. It’s just extremely unlikely.

Interiors of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune compared. Image: NASA.

Interiors of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune compared. Image: NASA.

Saturn’s interior is, as you can see above, comparable to that of fellow gas giant Jupiter. Unlike Uranus and Neptune, gas giants that at least harbor the common biosignatures of water and methane, Saturn features frozen, toxic, wispy hydrogen and helium at the exterior with increasingly hot, pressurized matter as you get further in. By the time you’ve reached Saturn’s liquid metal core (assuming it has one, and that’s probably a safe assumption), you’re not really talking about anything a human would regard as habitable, or even observable.

But what about Saturn’s beautiful and distinctive rings—the largest in the solar system? Contrary to conventional wisdom, we now know that they’re about the same age as Saturn: 4.5 billion years old, plenty of time for an ecosystem to evolve. They even harbor a considerable amount of water ice. The trouble is temperature; the warmest of Saturn’s ring matter is -261°F/ -127°C, well below freezing.

It’s not completely impossible that we’ll find life on Saturn—it’s never completely impossible—but if we do, it won’t be life as we’ve come to understand it. Confronting the brute fact of life on a theoretically inhospitable environment, such as Saturn, would be tremendously exciting in part because it would be so improbable, so hard to explain according to our current understanding of things. The potential for that excitement is, of course, no substitute for evidence.

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Tom Head is an author or coauthor of 29 nonfiction books, columnist, scriptwriter, research paralegal, occasional hellraiser, and proud Jackson native. His book Possessions and Exorcisms (Fact or Fiction?) covers the recent demand for exorcists over the past 30 years and demonic possession.
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