Nasa discovers nearly all conditions needed for life found on Saturn's moon

A tiny, ice-encrusted ocean world orbiting Saturn is now a hotter-than-ever candidate for potential life.

"This is the closest we've come, so far, to identifying a place with some of the ingredients needed for a habitable environment", said NASA administrator Thomas Zurbuchen.

In a major announcement on Thursday, scientists published research analyzing the ice plumes shooting into space from Saturn's moon Enceladus.

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.

"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". To prevent any chance that the spacecraft could eventually crash into Enceladus or any other moon, possibly contaminating a pristine environment, NASA has made a decision to crash the spacecraft into Saturn's atmosphere in September, vaporizing the probe in a kamikaze-like plunge. "It would be like a candy store for microbes", stated Hunter Waite, lead Cassini researcher.

The findings were announced along with observations by the Hubble Space Telescope of another, much older moon - evidence of plumes spraying out of the surface of Jupiter's Europa. As with Europa, a moon of Jupiter, this heat warms up the interior, creating an ocean with hydrothermal activity and surface fractures from which materials can escape in space.

"Based on the data, NASA believes that it's possible for simple life such as bacteria to live on the seafloor of Enceladus, adding that they will be excited with any discovery of life". If that is the case, then it is also reasonable to think that microbe life - if it exists - could be flourishing due to a process known as "methanogenesis".

"This is where microbes combine hydrogen with carbon dioxide to make methane, and they get a jolt of energy out of the process", he said. It would provide evidence to suggest that our galaxy is teeming with life, because if life began independently on two different bodies in our solar system, then surely it also got going on numerous potentially habitable planets that we are now finding around other stars. The team suggests that this phenomenon is a chemical effect of interactions between the rocky core and warm water from the underground ocean of the moon.

"We haven't discovered evidence of organisms on Enceladus. We're finding new environments", said James Green, NASA s Planetary Science Division Director.

NASA is developing a mission to Europa known as Clipper that is still in the preliminary design phase but that would launch in the 2020s and reach Europa after a journey of "several years".

NASA doesn't usually hold news conferences for minor discoveries or observations, so when the agency announced that it would be holding a press conference this week to talk about oceans on other planets, we knew it had to be something particularly interesting.

  • Carolyn Briggs