Life on Saturn's Moon?

Life might be existing in the ocean of Saturn's moon, Enceladus. From additional Cassini observations, scientists concluded that not only is there a pool of water near the south pole of Enceladus to generate the plumes, but a global ocean that lies beneath the moon's ice. "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 discovery was made using NASA's Cassini spacecraft, which in September will end a 13-year mission exploring Saturn and its entourage of 62 known moons.

Life as we know it requires three primary ingredients: liquid water; a source of energy for metabolism; and the right chemical ingredients, primarily carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulphur. The final step is the molecular hydrogen being produced, which has the chemical energy to support microbial systems in the ocean.

"If correct, this observation has fundamental implications for the possibility of life on Enceladus", geochemist Jeffrey Seewald, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in MA, wrote in a related commentary in Science.

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"The next time we go back. you're going to take something that not only picks up on the habitability story, but it starts looking for evidence for life".

A decade later, scientists measuring the moon's slightly wobbly orbit around Saturn determined it holds a vast ocean buried 19- to 25 miles (30- to 40 km) beneath its icy shell.

While some ingredients for life were found on Enceladus, the scientists made clear that the discovery didn't confirm life on the planet, but merely confirmed favorable conditions.

Illustration showing Cassini above the plumes of Enceladus.

The Cassini spacecraft detected the hydrogen in the plume of gas and icy material spraying from Enceladus during its last, and deepest, dive through the plume on October 28, 2015.

The paper by researchers with the Cassini mission, published Thursday in Science magazine, says that the hydrogen gas - which could potentially provide a source of chemical energy for the existence of life - is found in Enceladus' frozen ocean. What the Cassini mission did was also to establish that there is a source of energy. This new finding is therefore an independent line of evidence supporting the theory of hydrothermal activity taking place in the ocean of Enceladus.

At the same time, NASA scientists have also reported additional evidence of water vapour plumes erupting from Jupiter's moon Europa.

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

Scientists at the Goddard Space Center compared ultraviolet photos the Hubble space telescope took of Europa in 2014, when it first saw the gaseous spray emanating from the moon, and found it again in a 2016 picture.

  • Carolyn Briggs