Life beyond Earth? Possibly on a Saturn moon

Water vapor plume art

Water vapor plume art

During Cassini's deepest dive through the Enceladus plume, NASA-funded scientists discovered hydrogen gas in the material erupting from the Saturnian moon.

Life requires three ingredients according to NASA: liquid water; an energy source for metabolism; and the correct chemical ingredients (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur).

As per reports, Cassini is not able to detect life, and has found no evidence that Enceladus is inhabited.

"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. 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", administrator Thomas Zurbuchen said.

Who would have thought that Enceladus - Saturn's small, icy moon, which is a billion miles farther from the sun than Earth - could support life?

Research suggesting the possibility of an ocean on Europa was published as early as 1977, after the Voyager mission saw long lines and dark spots, as opposed to a cratered surface similar to other moons. This gas could possibly act as a source of chemical energy for life forms.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Handout via REUTERSNASA's Cassini spacecraft is shown diving through the plume of Saturn's moon Enceladus, in 2015, in this photo illustration.

Chemical analysis of the plume suggested conditions favourable for methanogenesis - the generation of methane by microbes that use hydrogen and carbon dioxide to obtain energy.

Cassini wasn't created to detect signs of life in the Enceladus plume - indeed, scientists didn't know the plume existed until after the spacecraft arrived at Saturn.

The space agency presented its findings in a paper, which was published on April 13 in the journal Science. The mission plan includes 40 to 45 flybys to image Europa's icy surface at high resolution and investigate its composition and interior structure. They also informed about Jupiter's moon Europa erupting plumes.

Want to learn more about today's announcement of molecular hydrogen on Enceladus? Scientists do not have as much close up data about Europa as they do for Enceladus, however, and the Hubble data are not definitive.

Over the past few years, NASA's Cassini spacecraft has been gathering even more from Enceladus, by passing close to the moon and even flying through the plumes of water streaming from near its south pole.

Like Enceladus, Europa harbors a subsurface saltwater ocean and could contain organic molecules.

Using a spectrometer, the spacecraft determined that the plumes are 98% water and one percent hydrogen, with traces of molecules including ammonia, carbon dioxide and methane.

The plumes have led scientists to infer that hydrothermal chemical reactions between the moon s rocky core and its ocean - located under the ice - are likely occurring on Enceladus.

During Galileo's mission, researchers noted what appeared to be cracks in the icy surface of Europa. The measurements are at the limit of Hubble's abilities, but researchers say they are confident the plumes actually exist.

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