NASA finds conditions for life on Saturn's moon

Geronimo Vena
Aprile 22, 2017

That chemical, detected by the Cassini spacecraft, is molecular hydrogen (H2), which is produced by hydrothermal vents in the Earth's sea floor that are harbors for microbial life.

During a news briefing held today, NASA has announced the spacecraft Cassini had found hydrogen as a gas - the form needed to support single-celled organisms in the moon's ocean. Enceladus is Saturn's sixth largest moon, was discovered in 1789 and is 1.272 billion kilometers (0.790 billion miles) away from Earth.

There are three essential ingredients for life: water, a source of energy for metabolism, and a mixture of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulphur. However, NASA scientists suspect these two ingredients to be present on Enceladus because the moon's rocky core is thought to be chemically similar to meteorites that contain phosphorous and sulfur.

The researchers from the Cassini mission revealed that hydrogen gas, which could potentially provide a chemical energy source for life, is pouring into the subsurface ocean of Enceladus from hydrothermal activity on the seafloor. That's how the Cassini team found hydrogen in the water.

According to NASA, this chemical reaction is 'the root of the tree of life on Earth, ' and it may have served a vital role in the formation of life here.

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.

Cassini also picked up water, traces of ammonia, carbon dioxide and methane in Enceladus' water plume.

A decade later, scientists measuring the moon's slightly wobbly orbit around Saturn determined it holds a vast ocean buried 30km-40km (19-25 miles) beneath its icy shell.

NASA's Cassini mission is soon about to wind up with the craft whirling into saturn's environs.

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

Scientists at the Goddard Space Center compared ultraviolet photos the Hubble space telescope took of Europa in 2014, when it first saw the gaseous spray emanating from the moon, and found it again in a 2016 picture.

Meanwhile, Dr. David Clements, astrophysicist at Imperial College London, said: 'This discovery does not mean that life exists on Enceladus, but it is a step on the way to that result'.

The Europa Clipper is set to launch in the 2020s and will make close flybys to Europa to study the oceans there to determine whether or not the same thing is happening there as on Enceladus, and importantly whether or not the moon could possibly support life.

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