Astronomers Find Habitable Zone in Saturn's Moon

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

"The abundance of H2, along with previously observed carbonate species, suggests a state of chemical disequilibria in the Enceladus ocean that represents a chemical energy source capable of supporting life", Jeffrey Seewald, of the Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry Department at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in MA, wrote in an accompanying "Perspectives" piece in the same issue of Science.

This is the closest scientists have come to identifying a place having the ingredients for life, said Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator of the NASA Science Mission Directorate.

For life to persist on any planet, it needs three vital energy sources: liquid water, right chemical ingredients (hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, carbon, and phosphorus), and an energy source for metabolism.

Saturn's moon Enceladus and Jupiter's moon Europa have been deemed the places most likely to host life outside of Earth, according to NASA scientists.

In addition now, there is proof that a source of energy, namely hydrogen, exists.

On its last deep dive past the moon in October 2015, the spacecraft measured the chemical composition of one of the vapour plumes using its Mass Spectrometer (INMS) instrument - which sniffs gases to determine their make-up. The data gathered by the Cassini aided scientists to determine that roughly 98 percent of the gas present in the plume is composed of water.

One ingredient found that led to the groundbreaking theory is hydrogen gas, which is abundantly spewed from a plume. Finding this hydrothermal process on Enceladus shows the potential for the existence of life within its ocean.

Cassini has found that nearly all of these ingredients are there on Enceladus, a tiny icy moon at a distance of a billion miles away from Saturn. "Although we can not detect life, we have found that there is a food source there for it", said lead author of the Cassini study Hunter Waite.

The consequent chemical reaction known as methanogenesis, which creates methane as a byproduct, is "at the root of the tree of life" on our planet and could have been crucial to the origin of life on Earth. These organisms could be the foundation of a larger ecosystem in Saturn's moon.

"If there are plumes on Europa, as we now strongly suspect, with the Europa Clipper we will be ready for them", said Jim Green, Director of Planetary Science, at NASA Headquarters.

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