Research

Life in Solar System Nearly Possible on Two Moons

Life in Solar System Nearly Possible on Two Moons”

This illustration provided by NASA illustrates a theory that water interacts with rock at the bottom of the ocean of Saturn's icy moon Enceladus, producing hydrogen gas.

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.

Life as we know it on Earth requires liquid water, a source of chemical energy to support metabolism, and the right mix of ingredients including oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, phosphorous and sulfur. It would provide evidence to suggest that our galaxy is teeming with life, because if life began independently on two different bodies in our solar system, then surely it also got going on numerous potentially habitable planets that we are now finding around other stars. Either way the implications are profound.

"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 at Headquarters in Washington, said in a statement.

The researchers believe the gas is pouring into the moon's subsurface ocean through hydrothermal activity on the seafloor.

In a subsequent flyby through the plume in 2015, Cassini's INMS was programmed into a mode that helped to minimize any analytical artifacts that had previously compromised the measurements of the energy source, molecular hydrogen.

But in 2005 the unmanned Cassini spacecraft was orbiting Saturn when it picked up plumes of vapour coming from the "tiger stripes", or deep fissures, in the moon's surface.

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Chemical analysis of the plume suggested conditions favourable for methanogenesis - the generation of methane by microbes that use hydrogen and carbon dioxide to obtain energy.

The solar system is teeming with ocean worlds, including ice-covered moons like Saturn's Enceladus and Jupiter's Europa. Cassini also looked into the plume composition during its flybys. They found that plumed were bursting or were erupting from Europa, which is a moon of Jupiter. "It would be like a candy store for microbes", stated Hunter Waite, lead Cassini researcher. Enceladus has nearly every single one of these ingredients, except for phosphorous and sulfur, although scientists believe they may be somewhere in its inner ocean, as the moon's core is believed to be similar in its composition to meteorites that do contain both chemicals.

Artist's rendering shows Cassini spacecraft diving through plume from Saturn's moon Enceladus.

NASA on Thursday confirmed the discovery of hydrogen on Enceladus, one of Saturn's moons, a circumstance that could mean there are living organisms there. It has photographed the jets, determined they are made up of 98 percent water ice and has even flown through them, sampling the material with a spectrometer and detecting ammonia, carbon dioxide, methane and organic compounds.

However, the scientists think that because the moon is young, there may not have been time for life to emerge.

This is now the third detection of plumes near the southern polar region of Europa.

The Europa Clipper will be equipped with a powerful ultraviolet imaging system that will be able to make close-up, high-resolution observations that should reveal the nature of the presumed plumes and whether they represent water escaping through the surface cracks. A fleet of underwater drones is being tested in the oceans of the Earth, in preparation for the Europa clipper mission.



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