Published: Sun, April 16, 2017
Research | By Jennifer Evans

Saturn's moon Enceladus has flawless conditions for life

Saturn's moon Enceladus has flawless conditions for life

The US space agency NASA's Cassini spacecraft has discovered hydrogen in the plume of gas and icy particles spraying from Saturn's sixth largest moon Enceladus. "We now know that Enceladus has nearly all of the ingredients that you would need to support life as we know it on Earth".

"This is a very significant finding because the hydrogen could be a potential source of chemical energy for any microbes that might be in Enceladus ocean", NASA Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker said.

The hydrogen was detected during a 2015 flyby when NASA's Cassini spacecraft raced through plumes of vapor spewing from cracks at the moon's south pole, scientists said.

"This finding does not mean that life exists there, but it makes life more plausible and potentially quite abundant if a fraction of the hydrogen is used to drive biology."
Either way the implications are profound.

"This is the closest we've come, so far, to identifying a place with some of the ingredients needed for a habitable environment", according to Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. With this finding, Cassini has shown that Enceladus - a small, icy moon a billion miles farther from the sun than Earth - has almost all of these ingredients for habitability.

"Based on the data, NASA believes that it's possible for simple life such as bacteria to live on the seafloor of Enceladus, adding that they will be excited with any discovery of life".

Mary Voytek, a senior astrobiologist at NASA, said there were roughly four main ingredients for life: water, time, energy and the right chemical elements - including carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur.

The moon Enceladus is just 502 kilometers (311 miles) in diameter and has an icy surface, a rocky interior and an ocean of liquid water sandwiched between the two.

Microbes process both to obtain energy in a process known as methanogenesis.

Researchers published their findings in the journal Science for those interested in digging deeper.

Like Enceladus, Jupiter's moon Europa is thought to have an ocean under an icy crust.

Scientists at the Goddard Space Center compared ultraviolet photos the Hubble space telescope took of Europa in 2014, when it first saw the gaseous spray emanating from the moon, and found it again in a 2016 picture.

Cassini's latest plunge through Enceladus' plumes has now turned up evidence that this same process is going on along the sea floor of Enceladus' subsurface ocean. It was mostly water molecules, but scientists also found hydrogen molecules. On three previous flybys, scientists had managed to measure the composition of the jets' material, and detected molecules of water, carbon dioxide, methane, and ammonia.

"Now, Enceladus is high on the list in the solar system for showing habitable conditions", said Hunter Waite, one of the study's leading researchers.

The green oval highlights the plumes Hubble observed on Europa. One form of chemical energy has been noted as being able to feed life, which appears to exist on Saturn's moon called Enceladus. However, the scientists believe that phosphorus and sulphur might be existing on the moon. The most recent survey ranked Europa second, however, behind a series of missions to return a sample of Mars to Earth.

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