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

Saturn's moon Enceladus has flawless conditions for life

Saturn's moon Enceladus has flawless conditions for life

NASA on Thursday revealed that conditions on Enceladus, the sixth-largest moon orbiting Saturn, may be ideal 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.

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.

The discovery makes Enceladus the only place - apart from Earth - where a local energy source for life has been discovered.

"It really represents a capstone finding for the mission", Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker said.

The Cassini spacecraft found hydrogen in the plume of gas and icy material spraying from Enceladus during its last, and deepest, dive through the plume on October 28, 2015.

From these observations scientists were able to find that almost 98 percent of the gas in the plume is water, about 1 percent is hydrogen and the remaining is a mixture of other molecules including carbon dioxide, methane and ammonia.

Cassini has found that nearly all of these ingredients are there on Enceladus, a tiny icy moon at a distance of a billion miles away from Saturn. 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.

NASA's Planetary Science Division Director, James Green, said: "We're pushing the frontiers".

Sunlight doesn't reach all hydrothermal vents here on our planet yet despite the lack of light, it's not uncommon to find a thriving community of life near such vents.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, called Saturn's moon Enceladus "the closest we've come" to identifying a planet with the necessary ingredients for a habitable planet.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft said the icy, ocean-covered body possesses ample amounts of hydrogen gas.

There is not only a warm, wet environment, there is also food for life on Enceladus as there is fuel for an ecosystem there.

While the Cassini spacecraft was unable to evidence the presence of sulfur and phosphorus on the tiny Enceladus, scientists suspect their presence in the satellite's ocean.

The energy can be obtained from the combination of hydrogen and carbon dioxide dissolved in water. The Hubble Space Telescope has observed what looks to be plumes emanating from Europa.

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