Life in Ocean of Saturn's Moon, Enceladus?

On Thursday, NASA announced Saturn's moon Enceladus was found to have giant plumes containing hydrogen molecules that could be a potential source for microbial life. Cassini already sent some impressive images of Saturn's atmosphere and shown us detailed images of Saturn's rings. Scientists believe the most likely source of the hydrogen is chemical reactions between water and silicate rock (hydrothermal activity).

Chris Glein, a member of Cassini's Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS) team at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, said the energy produced on Enceladus' seafloor is equivalent to "300 pizzas per hour".

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.

NASA's Planetary Science Division Director, James Green, said: "We're pushing the frontiers".

The Cassini craft detected the hydrogen in 2015 as it flew through hrough one of the hot bursts of spray spurting from four "tiger stripe" cracks near the moon's south pole.

The plume was 62-miles high and occurred near the moon's equator in February. But now, we know that three of the four conditions are there on Enceladus - and this distant moon now joins Mars and Europa as the best potential locations for life beyond Earth in our solar system.

Scientists believe there is an ocean of tidally heated liquid water beneath Enceladus' surface - making it a prime target in the search for extra-terrestrial life. This flyby took the spacecraft just 30 miles above the moon's surface.

The presence of ample hydrogen in the moon's ocean means that microbes - if any exist there - could use it to obtain energy by combining the hydrogen with carbon dioxide dissolved in the water.

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.

Cassini, on its final mission before it runs out of fuel and is allowed to burn up its space, was sent diving deep into the jets.

"Although we can't detect life, we've found that there's a food source there for it".

"It would be wonderful but we haven't discovered organisms in the ocean on Enceladus", said Voytek during the announcement. It could, very well, also have the same life-sustaining elements as Enceladus. "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. A spacecraft under development called the Europa Clipper could shed more light on the matter.

After orbiting Saturn for 13 years, its "grand finale" mission will end in September when it is diverted to crash into Saturn.

  • Carolyn Briggs