Saturn and Jupiter's moon burps bode well for distant life

NASA scientists working on the Cassini mission, which is a joint endeavour of NASA, European Space Agency (ESA) and the Italian Agenzia Spaziale Italiana (ASI) to study Saturn's system, announced that "a form of chemical energy that life can feed on appears to exist" on Enceladus.

"With this finding, Cassini has shown that Enceladus - a small, icy moon a billion miles farther from the sun than Earth - has almost all of these ingredients for habitability", NASA said in a statement announcing the findings.

"We now know that Enceladus has nearly all of the ingredients that you would need to support life as we know it on Earth", she said at a NASA news conference. The presence of ample hydrogen in the ocean of Enceladus implies that microbes, if they do exist on Saturn's moon, could use it to gain energy by combining it with carbon dioxide dissolved in water. In addition now, there is proof that a source of energy, namely hydrogen, exists.

In 2015, researchers said that there was evidence of a warm ocean under the moon's surface, as NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reported.

Not only that, but the plumes on Enceladus are associated with hotter regions on the moon. "This chemical reaction, known as "methanogenesis" because it produces methane as a byproduct, is at the root of the tree of life on Earth, and could even have been critical to the origin of life on our planet". And although Cassini has not yet shown that phosphorus and sulphur are present in Enceladus's ocean, it is possible that they are present as the rocky core of this icy world is thought to be chemically similar to meteorites that contain these two elements.

Cassini scientists detected hydrogen molecules - which could potentially provide a chemical energy source for life - in water pouring into the subsurface ocean of Enceladus from hydrothermal activity on the seafloor.

"This is the closest we've come, so far, to identifying a place with some of the ingredients needed for a habitable environment", Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at Headquarters in Washington, stated.

It was after the Cassini spacecraft which flew through a huge plume of water that the findings surfaced up. "It would be like a candy store for microbes", said Hunter Waite, lead author of the Cassini study.

Scientists believe this breakthrough discovery will pave the way for more explorations within our solar system, in order to find life.

However, post the discovery of the icy spray by Cassini in 2005, the researchers shifted the detectors toward Enceladus. "We discovered that Europa's plume candidate is sitting right on the thermal anomaly", said William Sparks of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

  • Carolyn Briggs