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

Saturn moon has necessary conditions to harbor life

But, according to NASA, beneath that inhospitable crust there could actually be life thriving in the moon's far warmer underground seas.

Silica nanoparticles were also detected, indicating a hot rocky interior reacting chemically with alkaline water.

An environment that some scientists believe led to life on Earth has been found on Saturn's ocean-bearing moon Enceladus, NASA scientists have said.

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".

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has detected hydrogen molecules in the geysers shooting off the moon Enceladus, possibly the result of deep-sea chemical reactions between water and rock that could spark microbial life, scientists announced Thursday.

The probe found the hydrogen when it made its last and closest pass through plumes at Enceladus' south pole on October 28, 2015.

Observations show the spray is made up of about 98 per cent water vapor, one per cent hydrogen, and the rest is a mixture of carbon dioxide, methane and ammonia. The sample was made using Cassini's Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS) which sniffs gasses to determine their composition.

Researchers published their findings in the journal Science for those interested in digging deeper. 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". We're not assuming. Well, kinda... At Lost City and elsewhere, microbes consume hydrogen and carbon dioxide to make energy, which they spend on making essentials such as proteins. The gas is produced in a similar way in Earth's oceans and waterways. So they figure if methanogenesis helped Earth's humans develop, why can't it help Enceladus' aliens? 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.

There are not now any funded missions to Enceladus on the schedule, but Cassini's discovery may elevate NASA's desire to return to the icy moon. "It would be like a candy store for microbes", said Hunter Waite, lead author of the Cassini study.

Voytek said her money is still on Europa for potential life, versus Enceladus. As we still haven't ever found life anywhere but on Earth, though, finding anything living at all in another location, even if it's not full-blown space whales, would be a huge discovery.

In a separate study published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope again found what is likely a plume emitting from Europa, one of Jupiter's four largest moons, which also has an icy crust atop an ocean.

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. Ultraviolet photographs were taken which are viewable below. These images bolster evidence that the Europa plumes could be a real phenomenon, flaring up intermittently in the same region on the moon's surface. Waite believes that Europa is now at a disadvantage because a mass spectrometer hasn't flown through its plume to collect data, and it's Europa's turn to have that experience.

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