Research

Ocean World Near Saturn Hotter-than-Ever Contender for Life

Over the past few years, NASA's Cassini spacecraft has been gathering even more from Enceladus, by passing close to the moon and even flying through the plumes of water streaming from near its south pole. New ocean world discoveries from Cassini and Hubble will help inform future exploration and the broader search for life beyond Earth. Cassini has found almost all of the ingredients for life on Enceladus: liquid water, a source of energy and the chemical elements - carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorous and sulfur - that we know contributed to the formation of life on Earth. Geological turmoil caused by the effect of Saturn's gravity on the moon's core is believed to produce enough heat to keep the ocean warm and to send geyser-like plumes of water spewing out into space.

Two veteran NASA missions are providing new details about icy, ocean-bearing moons of Jupiter and Saturn, further heightening the scientific interest of these and other "ocean worlds" in our solar system and beyond.

"It's another great day of science", Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, told reporters.

"We have come as far as we can go", Spilker said of Cassini's mission. There, microbes don't receive energy from sunlight, but use methanogenesis, a process that reduces carbon dioxide with hydrogen, to form methane. "It would be like a candy store for microbes", said Hunter Waite, lead author of the Cassini study. "Enceladus, where there are also water vapor plumes associated with warm regions of the moon's surface".

Chris Glein, a member of Cassini's Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS) team at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, said the energy produced on Enceladus' seafloor is equivalent to "300 pizzas per hour".

New NASA evidence suggests that there's a chemical reaction taking place under the moon's icy surface that could provide conditions for life. Plus, Hubble spies a plume on Europa for the second time.

Analysis has shown the plumes mainly to consist of tiny particles of water ice, with traces of methane, ammonia, carbon dioxide, salts, and simple organic molecules.

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If life is present, it could resemble single-celled extremophiles that have lived in hydrothermal vents for billions of years. "Chemical disequilibrium that is known to support microbial life in Earth's deep oceans is also available to support life in the Enceladus ocean".

That quote basically sums this entire article up: there's proof that life may exist, but there's no proof it actually does. But now, if the temperature is connected to the plumes - just like on Enceladus - it suggests that cryovolcanism is also happening on Europa.

The Europa Clipper mission was recently announced to explore more ocean worlds in Earth's solar system and mainly on Europa.

"Repeatability gives us a lot more faith", Sparks said.

In case you're wondering, according to the New York Times, their next major planetary mission will be to the previously mentioned Europa in the 2020s, via the cleverly named Europa Clipper.

"Most of us would be excited with any life, and certainly when we're talking about the sources of energy, this is to feed the base of a food web". A separate lander robot will assess the possibility of life on the moon by searching for key elements on its surface.



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