Saturn's Moon Enceladus Could Have Conditions for Life

This might have applications for knowledge about satellites in orbit among other gas giants or planets in other solar systems.

This illustration shows Cassini diving through the Enceladus plume in 2015.

This finding led to the conclusion that microbes on the moon can get energy through a process known as methanogenesis - which is carried out by combining hydrogen with carbon dioxide present in water.

From these observations scientists have determined that almost 98 per cent of the gas in the plume is water, about 1 per cent is hydrogen and the rest is a mixture of other molecules including carbon dioxide, methane and ammonia.

"Confirmation that the chemical energy for life exists within the ocean of a small moon of Saturn is an important milestone in our search for habitable worlds beyond Earth", said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

The gas could be a chemical energy source of life, scientists involved with the mission said.

The ingredients required for life are liquid water, energy sources and chemicals such as carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur and phosphorus.

Zurbuchen added that the missions were getting humans closer to understanding whether they were "indeed alone or not".

"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", Jeffrey Kargel, a professor at the University of Arizona, told The Guardian.

Although Cassini hasn't yet shown presence of phosphorus and sulfur in the ocean, scientists suspect them to be, since the rocky core of Enceladus is thought to be chemically similar to meteorites that contain the two elements. "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 researchers believe the gas is pouring into the moon's subsurface ocean through hydrothermal activity on the seafloor.

In a separate study, scientists also reported additional evidence of water vapour plumes erupting from Jupiter's moon Europa. Like Enceladus, both plumes correspond to the location of an unusually warm region that is marked by features that could be cracks in the moon's icy crust. We're finding new environments. "We discovered that Europa's plume candidate is sitting right on the thermal anomaly", said William Sparks of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. A plume of water had already been observed in the same spot, which is how scientists knew to be watching for it. "And part of that could be that we think Enceladus might be fairly young". Hopefully, NASA's Europa Clipper mission, which is planned for launch in the 2020s will be able to verify if this is the situation or not.

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