Saturn's moon has nearly all conditions to support life

Rodiano Bonacci
Aprile 20, 2017

NASA has announced that a form of chemical energy that life can feed on appears to exist on Saturn's moon Enceladus.

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

Cassini has detected hydrogen molecules in vapor plumes emanating from cracks in the surface of Enceladus, a small ocean moon coated in a thick layer of ice, the U.S. space agency said.

The Cassini spacecraft perceived the presence of hydrogen in the gas plumes and other materials, which were emanating from Enceladus. When Cassini sampled the plume, it found it to be 98 percent water, with the remaining 2 per cent consisting of elements like liquid hydrogen, carbon dioxide and methane - and traces of organics.

The new findings, published in the US journal Science, are an independent line of evidence that hydrothermal activity is taking place in the ocean of Enceladus, a small, icy moon a billion miles farther from the sun than Earth.

The Cassini probe - a joint project of NASA, the European Space Agency and Italy's ASI space agency - will now undergo a course correction to enable it to study Saturn's rings before being plunged into the gas giant's atmosphere in September, ending its 13-year mission to explore the distant planet and its 62 known moons.

Twitter was gung-ho about investigating more closely, although at least one tweeter was rather blasé about the find.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Handout via REUTERSNASA's Cassini spacecraft is shown diving through the plume of Saturn's moon Enceladus, in 2015, in this photo illustration.

From information obtained by the spacecraft, there is evidence of chemical reactions under the icy surface of the moon.

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.

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.

Cassini has no instruments that can detect life, so it will be up to future robotic visitors to seek out possible life on Enceladus, the scientists said.

"This is the closest we've come, so far, to identifying a place with some of the ingredients needed for a habitable environment", Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said in a statement.

This instrument was created to examine the upper atmosphere of Titan, another of Saturn's 62 known moons.

This chemical reaction, known as "methanogenesis" because it produces methane as a byproduct, is at the root of the tree of life on Earth, and could even have been critical to the origin of life on our planet.

Researchers called its latest discovery a "capstone finding for the mission". "My money for the moment is still on Europa", she says.

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