NASA believes hydrothermal vents (and life) may exist on Saturn's moon Enceladus

Pablo Tucker
April 17, 2017

NASA researchers are finding increasing evidence the building blocks for life may be on two moons inside our solar system.

The discovery means that microbes - if any exist there - could obtain energy by combining the hydrogen with carbon dioxide dissolved in the water.

Scientists have been trying to find out the prime candidates for life within our solar system and all of the necessary things to support life have now been found on one of the moons that orbits Saturn.

Illustration showing Cassini above the plumes of Enceladus.

The findings were announced along with observations by the Hubble Space Telescope of another, much older moon - evidence of plumes spraying out of the surface of Jupiter's Europa. Although Cassini hasn't found phosphorus and sulfur in the ocean, scientists suspect that they are present there. This process leads to the production of methane; this compound is also found in the roots of trees on Earth and is likely to have played a major role in the existence of life on our planet. But our planet's mostly liquid surface appears to be an outlier among our system's oceans-most large reservoirs of water exist on planets and moons far from the sun's heat and therefore can exist only beneath a frozen solid crust.


On its last deep dive past the moon in October 2015, the spacecraft measured the chemical composition of one of the vapour plumes using its Mass Spectrometer (INMS) instrument - which sniffs gases to determine their make-up.

As the lead author Hunter Waite put it, the reaction would basically provide a "candy store for microbes".

Associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Tomas Zurbuchen, said: "These results demonstrate the interconnected nature of NASA's science missions that are getting us closer to answering whether we are indeed alone or not".

"It really represents a capstone finding for the mission", said Cassini's project scientist, Linda Spilker, noting that the spacecraft has been circling Saturn for more than a decade.

The discovery makes Enceladus the only place - apart from Earth - where a local energy source for life has been discovered.


Voytek said her money is still on Europa for potential life, versus Enceladus.

The search for life beyond Earth is leading scientists to a tiny, icy moon orbiting Saturn, where experts say conditions are ripe for microbial organisms.

In a press release for the briefing, NASA noted that the new results will affect the space agency's multi-billion-dollar Europa Clipper mission.

"We still have a long way to go in our understanding", said Seewald, who was not involved in the study.


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