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

There may be alien life in solar system


The water is believed to be heated by what is known as "tidal heat", a condition generated by Saturn's vast gravitational pull as it twists and stretches the 313-mile-wide (504 kilometers) moon as it orbits the gas giant. But its detectors were turned towards Jupiter's icy moon Enceladus post discovering the emission of the towering plume of icy spray in 2015. "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".

In a major announcement on Thursday, scientists published research analyzing the ice plumes shooting into space from Saturn's moon Enceladus.

Soon after the Cassini orbiter began circling Saturn in 2005 it discovered water plumes venting into space from cracks at the moon's south pole. Combined with carbon dioxide, the hydrogen could provide the right conditions for life "as we know it", according to NASA.

With this finding, "we now know Enceladus has nearly all of the ingredients that you need to support life as we know it on Earth", Spilker said.

This established that, while Enceladus is freezing on its surface, underneath is a liquid ocean.

"We detected hydrogen in the plume of Enceladus", Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said at a webcast news briefing. "It would be like a candy store for microbes", said lead author Hunter Waite, program director at Southwest Research Institute.

In a separate paper published Thursday in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, another team of researchers using the Hubble Space Telescope once again spotted what appears to be a similar plume rising from Europa, one of Jupiter's big moons that also possesses an ocean beneath an icy exterior.

The decision to end the mission was made in 2010, in order to avoid damaging moons like Enceladus, which could be explored for signs of life in the future.

Europa is one of Jupiter's moons and has an icy crust over a salty liquid water ocean which has double the quantity of water in Earth's seas. It could, very well, also have the same life-sustaining elements as Enceladus.

"This is where microbes combine hydrogen with carbon dioxide to make methane, and they get a jolt of energy out of the process", he said. The scientists believe the gas is likely produced by a chemical reaction involving hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the moon's ocean.

Underwater vents on Enceladus may resemble the ones seen on Earth's ocean floors, where microbes and other sea life congregate in or near the superheated water, often at extreme depths. Observations from the Galileo spacecraft was used to corroborate the Hubble findings, to show that the region was unusually warm.

The Europa Clipper, named for the innovative, streamlined ships of the 1800s, will launch in the 2020s and arrive at Europa after a few years.

Two long running Nasa missions, the Hubble Space Telescope and the Cassini mission to Saturn, are providing the evidence necessary for further scientific investigations into extraterrestrial life. It is believed the hydrogen came from a hydrothermal reaction between the moon's ocean and its rocky core.

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