Published: Sun, April 16, 2017
Science | By Boyd Webster

Ingredients for life exist on Saturn's moon Enceladus

Ingredients for life exist on Saturn's moon Enceladus

A recent analysis of the geysers erupting off the ice-encrusted ocean world Enceladus has revealed hydrogen molecules, NASA scientists said yesterday, a sign of the kind of deep-sea chemical reactions between water and rock that could create favorable conditions for life. "Because we now know that Enceladus has nearly all of the ingredients you would need to support life as we know it on Earth".

David Rothery, Professor of Planetary Geosciences at the Open University, said: "Life has not been discovered on Enceladus, but we do now have the last piece of evidence needed to demonstrate that life is possible there". 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", said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at their headquarters in Washington.

NASA may have found the ingredients for sustainable life on Saturn's moon, Enceladus.

Though Enceladus looks from a distance like a glimmering ball of ice, research in the past few years established that the tiny moon has a salty ocean sloshing underneath its frozen outer shell. The Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer on the spacecraft has detected a whiff of hydrogen in the gassy plumes belching out from Enceladus.

The new research suggests that Saturn's this moon has a chemical energy source capable of supporting life. It also requires liquid water and a variety of key elements, primarily carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorous and sulfur. From additional Cassini observations, scientists concluded that not only is there a pool of water near the south pole of Enceladus to generate the plumes, but a global ocean that lies beneath the moon's ice. The microbes could combine the carbon dioxide in water and hydrogen to gain energy.

Could icy moons like Saturn's Enceladus in the outer solar system be home to microbes or other forms of alien life? The final results were published in the journal Science.

The Europa Clipper will periodically fly past Jupiter's Europa moon to collect data and study the subsurface ocean. Hubble Telescope researchers found new evidence of water-ice plumes erupting from Jupiter's moon Europa. The Hubble space telescope is observing Europa from a distance for evidence of plumes of water, similar to the ones seen on Enceladus.

What's more, hydrogen is expected to be coming out from a series of sub-sea vents present on Enceladus.

As the lead author Hunter Waite put it, the reaction would basically provide a "candy store for microbes".

However, the scientists think that because the moon is young, there may not have been time for life to emerge. Scientists discovered via these samples that the plume consisted of 98% water, roughly 1% of hydrogen, and a mixture of other molecules like carbon dioxide, methane, and ammonia. Similarly, the scientists are confident that strong radiation on the surface of Enceladus can't be the source of this molecular hydrogen.

The newly imaged plume rises about 62 miles (100 kilometers) above Europa's surface, while the one observed in 2014 was estimated to be about 30 miles (50 kilometers) high. The much larger Europa, if it has life too, is a better prospect. Hubble has helped show that Europa also harbors its own globe-spanning ocean.

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