Research

Life beyond earth? Try Saturn's moon Enceladus

Stuck in a tidally-locked orbit around Saturn, NASA announced on Thursday the moon, Enceladus, has most of the building blocks to support life as we know it - two out of 60 moons ain't bad, right?

The detection of molecular hydrogen occurred in October 2015 during Cassini's last pass through Enceladus' plumes, when it skimmed 30 miles (49 km) above the moon's southern pole taking samples. In the paper, the Cassini scientists shared that Enceladus has a type of chemical energy, which life can feed on.

"This is the closest we've come, so far, to identifying a place with some of the ingredients needed for a habitable environment", NASA's Thomas Zurbuchen said.

With this finding, "we now know Enceladus has nearly all of the ingredients that you need to support life as we know it on Earth", Spilker said.

He said the intermittent geyser could be coming through a relatively thin portion of Europa's icy shell - "thin" meaning up to two miles thick - and could give an opportunity to study the moon's ocean without drilling down to reach it.

NASA and others are quick to point out this latest discovery does not mean there's life on Enceladus (ehn-SEHL'-uh-duhs), but that there may be conditions favorable for life.

Though Cassini does not have instruments capable of actually finding signs of life, "we've found that there's a food source there for it", said Waite. Meanwhile, the Hubble Space Telescope has again detected what may be plumes emanating from an ocean on Jupiter's moon Europa, though definitive data remain elusive. Researchers speculate that, like Enceladus, this could be evidence of water erupting from the moon's interior. Hollywood explored this terrain in the 2013 film Europa Report, depicting a crewed mission to the moon and investigation of its subsurface ocean. Despite being thousands of metres under the sea and therefore far away from sunlight, life was being sustained via the energy produced from hydrothermal activity released from the vents. They too indicate a form of chemical energy which could support life.

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Forty years ago, scientists on Earth found an astonishing oasis of life clustered around vents at the bottom of the ocean.

This is important because the gas is used by microorganisms, known as methanogens, to produce methane from carbon dioxide. Comparing it with thermal map that NASA's Galileo mission gathered in the 1990s, Hubble scientists discovered that the location corresponds to a thermal anomaly on Europa, a warm region on the otherwise frozen moon.

Cassini-Huygens scientists don't want that life polluted, and spoke earlier with WJZ about burning the spacecraft up in Saturn's atmosphere, to keep it from hitting something else.

Lunine said that although current cosmic exploration has found thousands of exoplanets in habitable zones, scientists are unsure whether the origin of life requires special circumstances, or more simply water, organics, minerals and energy.

"That's just going to be a tremendous opportunity to test our theories and see if there's life there", said James L. Green, director of planetary science at NASA.

NASA doesn't usually hold news conferences for minor discoveries or observations, so when the agency announced that it would be holding a press conference this week to talk about oceans on other planets, we knew it had to be something particularly interesting.



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