Is there life on Saturn's ocean-bearing moon Enceladus?

The scientific team analysed water samples taken by Nasa's Cassini space probe on a mission in 2015.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft detected the presence of molecular hydrogen in water plumes erupting from Saturn's icy moon Enceladus, the US space agency announced Thursday, suggesting that the distant world has nearly all the conditions necessary for life.

The energy can be obtained from the combination of hydrogen and carbon dioxide dissolved in water.

Cassini, an unmanned NASA spacecraft, has detected hydrogen molecules in geysers shooting off the moon Enceladus.

According to a report from Phys Org, scientists from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) discovered hydrogen erupting from the surface of Enceladus.

The finding have also provided further evidence that warm, mineral-laden water is pouring into the ocean from vents in the seafloor, as reported.

The consequent chemical reaction known as methanogenesis, which creates methane as a byproduct, is "at the root of the tree of life" on our planet and could have been crucial to the origin of life on Earth.

Lead scientist Dr Hunter Waite said the result showed the moon's environment would be "like a candy store for microbes" with a constant and plentiful food source.

The findings, published in the journal Science, indicate "there is chemical potential to support microbial systems", he added. 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.

"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".

"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.

The next step will be to send a life-finding mission to Enceladus. Plumes of water vapor spew from cracks at the moon's south pole. Molecular hydrogen is a vital part of Earth's oceans system, which microbes turn into methane, and this same process was found to have occurred on Enceladus as well.

Enceladus is quite small, makes it about 15 percent as large as Earth's moon. Mary Voytek, an astrobiology senior scientist for NASA, said her money is still on Europa because it is much older and any potential life there has had more time to emerge.

  • Carolyn Briggs