Published: Thu, April 20, 2017
Research | By Jo Caldwell

Life in Solar System Nearly Possible on Two Moons


This enhanced-color image of Enceladus by NASA's Cassini spacecraft features the "tiger stripe" fractures, from which geysers blast water ice and other material from the Saturn moon's subsurface ocean out into space.

The discovery means that microbes - if any exist there - could obtain energy by combining the hydrogen with carbon dioxide dissolved in the water. By flying through a plume spraying out of its icy shell, Cassini was able to detect molecular hydrogen.

If or since hydrogen was found in the oceans of the moon, in the oceans, then this could be a potential source of chemical energy for life that might be found there - if any exists there.

A liquid ocean exists beneath the icy surface of Enceladus, which is barely 300 miles across.

"These new discoveries will help inform future ocean world exploration - including NASA's upcoming Europa Clipper mission planned for launch in the 2020s - and the broader search for life beyond Earth", said NASA earlier.

Professor Jeffrey Kargel, from the University of Arizona, US, said: "As the authors model and describe, the hydrogen gas does indeed appear to be a tell-tale signature of hydrothermal activity occurring on the seafloor".

According to the associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Thomas Zurbuchen, this is the closest humanity has come so far to identify a place with some of the ingredients required to support life.

In the final stages of its 13-year-long exploration, Cassini continued its voyage to discover that there is a salty, global ocean under Enceladus' icy crust.

Is there life on Enceladus?

'These results demonstrate the interconnected nature of NASA's science missions that are getting us closer to answering whether we are indeed alone or not'.

Europa is potentially billions of years older than Enceladus, and life takes time to emerge.

It was after the Cassini spacecraft which flew through a huge plume of water that the findings surfaced up. "Cassini has not yet shown phosphorus and sulfur are present in the ocean, but scientists suspect them to be, since the rocky core of Enceladus is thought to be chemically similar to meteorites that contain the two elements".

From these current observations researchers have determined that almost 98 percent of the gas in the plume is water, about 1 percent is hydrogen and the rest is a mixture of other molecules including carbon dioxide, methane and ammonia. "My money for the moment is still on Europa", she says.

Enceladus is the sixth largest moon of Saturn.

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