NASA Announces Evidence Saturn's Moon Could Support Life

"Ocean worlds" on moons of Jupiter and Saturn contain water and other chemical components on which life could build, papers published Thursday detailed.

"Confirmation that the chemical energy for life exists within the ocean of a small moon of Saturn is an important milestone in our search for habitable worlds beyond Earth", said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at JPL.

According to Cassini mission researchers, hydrogen gas - a building block of life - has been detected pouring into the subsurface of the ocean of Enceladus as an outcome of the activity taking place on its seafloor.

"Life has not been discovered on Enceladus", stated Professor David Rothery.

Life on Saturn? Maybe not, but one of its moons, Enceladus, seems to be potentially habitable.

The spacecraft Cassini has been in Saturn's orbit since 2004, and has paid special attention to the massive plumes of gases and ice that explode like geysers from Enceladus's south pole, out of geological features known as "tiger stripes".

"We have detected hydrogen in the plume on Enceladus".

The Cassini craft was not created to detect signs of life, and scientists did not know the plume existed until they received data showing its existence.

The findings were reported Thursday in the journal Science by a team from Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.

"We keep looking and we keep finding locations within the solar system where we have growing prospects of finding microbial life", Carberry told the Herald.

Saturn's ice-crusted moon Enceladus may now be the single best place to go to look for life beyond Earth.

From these observations scientists have determined that almost 98 per cent of the gas in the plume is water, about one per cent is hydrogen and the rest is a mixture of other molecules including carbon dioxide, methane and ammonia.

The discovery of this chemical energy source means Enceladus is now the very best place to look for life outside of Earth, with conditions that could be just right for alien microbes to survive. "Now, you see the chemical energy source that microbes could use".

Fortuitously, Enceladus is not the only "hot bed" of activity in the Solar System.

Nasa has already green-lit a mission to Europa, an ocean moon of Jupiter.

Writing in the journal Science, the USA team led by Dr Hunter Waite, from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, concluded: "Our analysis supports the feasibility of methanogenesis as an energy-releasing process that can occur over a wide range of geochemical conditions plausible for Enceladus' ocean".

"Most of us would be excited with any life", said Mary Voytek, a senior scientist for NASA. The future Europa Clipper mission, expected to launch in the 2020's, will head to Europa to gather more information.

  • Carolyn Briggs