Published: Sat, April 15, 2017
Research | By Jennifer Evans

Ocean World Near Saturn Top Contender for Life Beyond Earth

In a first confirmation of its kind, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has confirmed the possibility of life inhabiting Enceladus, the watery moon of Saturn.

NASA had created quite a stir earlier this week with the announcement that it was going to reveal new discoveries about alien oceans in the Solar System, based on findings from the Cassini spacecraft and Hubble Space Telescope.

"We now know that Enceladus has nearly all of the ingredients that you would need to support life as we know it on Earth", she said at a NASA news conference. Researchers believe it has enough chemical energy that life could be supported there.

"It really represents a capstone finding for the mission", Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker said.

Enceladus' vents and plumes This cutaway view of Enceladus shows the moon's core, possible hydrothermal vents, ocean, ice layer, and jets that vent material into space. This hydrogen can be used by microbes, to produce food by means of chemical reactions combining it with dissolved carbon dioxide. Waite, who works with the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, said in an interview: "The next time we go back. not only picks up on the habitability story, but it starts looking for evidence for life".

"These results demonstrate the interconnected nature of NASA's science missions that are getting us closer to answering whether we are indeed alone or not", he said in a statement.

NASA sums it up best on the question of life on Enceladus and elsewhere.

The same sorts of chemical reactions that sustain life near deep-sea hydrothermal vents here on Earth could potentially be occurring within Enceladus' subsurface ocean, a new study published today (April 13) in the journal Science suggests.

Molecular hydrogen was detected in the ice plumes erupting from the moon's surface in October 2015 when Cassini passed through the plumes, skimming just 49 kilometers (30 miles) above the moon's surface collecting samples. "We now know that Enceladus has nearly all of the ingredients that you would need to support life as we know it on Earth". The gas could be a chemical energy source of life, scientists involved with the mission said. Scientists have determined that 98 percent of the gas in the plume is water, roughly 1 percent is hydrogen, and remaining is a mixture of molecules of carbon dioxide, methane, and ammonia. The heat needed to keep its ocean from freezing is thought to come from tidal forces exerted by Saturn and a neighboring larger moon, Dione.

The researchers say if the plumes and the warm spot are linked, it could mean water being vented from beneath the moon's icy crust is warming the surrounding surface. The warm region, considered a thermal anomaly on the icy Europa, close to the plume was seen in the late 1990s by the Galileo spacecraft. The Europa Clipper mission is set to launch to Europa in the 2020s.

"Most of us would be excited with any life", said Mary Voytek, an astrobiology senior scientist for NASA.

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