Life beyond earth? Try Saturn's moon Enceladus

Cheryl Sanders
April 16, 2017

NASA says their new evidence shows the most likely places to find life beyond Earth are on one of the moons of Jupiter or Saturn. These new findings show that Enceladus "has almost all of these ingredients for habitability".

Phosphorus and sulfur are needed for life and have not been detected by Cassini, but scientists think they are there because the core of Enceladus is thought to be similar chemically to meteorites that contain the elements, NASA reported.

The research published Thursday in the journal Science was conducted by NASA, Cornell University and Johns Hopkins University.

The Cassini mission researchers revealed that hydrogen is pouring into Enceladus' subsurface ocean because of hydrothermal activity occurring on the sea floor.

"Enceladus is high on the list in the solar system for showing habitable conditions", said Hunter Waite, the lead author of the study."There is chemical potential to support microbial systems".

The hydrogen found in the icy plumes erupting from the moon's surface have nearly all the necessary ingredients to support life on Earth, said Linda Spilker, one of the scientists working with the unmanned Cassini mission, which has been orbiting Saturn since 2004, said at a press conference. "They are protected by an ice shell much like our atmosphere protects us, our life here on earth and our ocean maintaining its liquid".

Cassini also picked up water, traces of ammonia, carbon dioxide and methane in Enceladus' water plume.

As for Europa, an icy moon orbiting Jupiter similar in size to Earth's, NASA reports that its "plumes could be a real phenomenon" by popping up in the same region in 2016 as it did in 2014. The gas could be a chemical energy source of life, scientists involved with the mission said. "Life has not been discovered on Enceladus", stated Professor David Rothery.

Long story short, scientists believe the chemical imbalance is caused by hot water seeping out from the moon's seafloor (there are liquid oceans beneath the icy surface).

The hydrogen was identified on Enceladus when the Cassini spacecraft dived into a gas plume on the moon back in 2015. "We discovered that Europa's plume candidate is sitting right on the thermal anomaly", said William Sparks of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. A spacecraft under development called the Europa Clipper, to launch sometime in the 2020s, could shed more light on the matter.

"This is truly an exciting time for us to be able to probe those and really try to understand what's happening in these ocean worlds", said Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division for NASA, during Thursday's conference.

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