Saturn's moon Enceladus harbours chemical energy for life

Ice plumes shooting into space from the ocean-bearing moon contain hydrogen from hydrothermal vents, an environment that some scientists believe led to the rise of life on Earth.

Scientists at NASA have discovered further evidence suggesting conditions for life as we know it may exist on Saturn's ocean-bearing moon Enceladus.

It shows similarities to Earth's hydrothermal vents, which supports microbial life on the ocean floor through the chemical energy from hydrogen.

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).

Molecular hydrogen was detected by NASA's Cassini spacecraft as it made its last pass through the plumes of the moon Enceladus in October 2015. Either way the implications are profound.

NASA may have found the ingredients for sustainable life on Saturn's moon, Enceladus. The plume on Enceladus' surface appears to have originated from its hydrothermally-active seafloor.

The gas was sniffed by Cassini, a spacecraft launched in 1997 that has been orbiting and studying the prominently ringed planet and its moons for years.

The new research suggests that Saturn's this moon has a chemical energy source capable of supporting life.

"Some of the most primitive metabolic pathways utilized by microbes in these environments involve the reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) with H2 to form methane (CH4) by a process known as methanogenesis", Jeffrey Seewald wrote in an accompanying piece in the same Science magazine.

Cassini has no instruments that can detect life, so it will be up to future robotic visitors to seek out possible life on Enceladus, the scientists said.

Researchers published their findings in the journal Science for those interested in digging deeper.

The Europa Clipper will periodically fly past Jupiter's Europa moon to collect data and study the subsurface ocean.

Update: NASA's Hubble telescope was also able to find evidence of an erupting plume back in 2016 during its orbit, further confirming the findings of Cassini's mission as legit.

Europa's plumes of water vapour, imaged roughly two years apart, by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Hydrothermal vents on the planet's moon Enceladus are similar to those found at the bottom of Earth's oceans, say academics.

Scientists suspect that the rocky core of Enceladus may have phosphorous and sulfur as well, considering the elements were found in meteorites that are thought to be chemically similar to the kind of rocky core Enceladus has. However, the scientists believe that phosphorus and sulphur might be existing on the moon.

The researchers discovered that 98 percent of the gas content present in its plume is water, just one percent of it is hydrogen and the remaining one percent comprises of molecules of carbon dioxide, ammonia and methane. In the paper, the Cassini scientists shared that Enceladus has a type of chemical energy, which life can feed on. Observations from the Galileo spacecraft was used to corroborate the Hubble findings, to show that the region was unusually warm. The much larger Europa, if it has life too, is a better prospect. The plume's reach was apparently 62 miles (100 kilometers) above Europa's surface.

  • Carolyn Briggs