Ocean world near Saturn a top contender for life

Ocean world near Saturn a top contender for life

Scientists have theorized that Enceladus contains a vast ocean of liquid water under its icy surface but the new research shows the moon may have locations similar to habitats on Earth.

At this point, however, the possibility of life existing on Enceladus is still speculative.

The Cassini spacecraft detected the hydrogen in the plume of gas and icy material spraying from Enceladus during its last, and deepest, dive through the plume on October 28, 2015.

Scientists on NASA's Cassini mission conjecture that this is how water interacts with rock at the bottom of the ocean of Saturn's icy moon Enceladus, producing hydrogen gas (H2).

"We now know that Enceladus has nearly all of the ingredients that you would need to support life as we know it on Earth", she said at a NASA news conference.

The hydrothermal vents on Earth's ocean floor emit hot, mineral-laden liquid, allowing unique ecosystems - teeming with unusual life forms - to thrive.

Since the unexpected discovery in 2005 that Saturn's icy moon actively vents gas, the Cassini spacecraft has buzzed the little body dozens of times. Tiny microbes that convert the mineral-laden liquid into metabolic energy make these ecosystems possible. Scientists believe it's being produced at hydrothermal vents similar to the ones on Earth.

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Even as efforts are picking up to find life on Mars, there is encouraging evidence that life-supporting chemical energy is present at Saturn's moon Enceladus.

It appears hydrogen gas is pouring into Enceladus' ocean from geothermal activity closer to the center of the moon. But it turns out the eruptions provide enough heat to support "extremophile" microorganisms - life where we didn't think it could exist.

According to scientists, the outgoing plumes from Enceladus carry vital chemical signatures emerging from the interaction between water and rocky core deep down. "If we can find life under the ice on Enceladus, that will tell us that life began there as well, independently of life on Earth, and that will be an wonderful finding because we don't know how likely it is for life to start", Rothery explained. The newly released results of that trip show the presence of molecular hydrogen (H2) in Enceladus' water. The ocean is believed to be the geysers' source. This process can also be observed on Earth.

An illustration of the Cassini spacecraft diving through an Enceladus plume in 2015.

"The relatively high hydrogen abundance in the plume signals thermodynamic disequilibrium that favors the formation of methane from Carbon dioxide in Enceladus' ocean". The Cassini mission has yet to spot phosphorus and sulfur in Enceladus' oceans, but researchers are confident that those elements are present, due to the moon's rocky core being similar in chemical composition to meteorites with phosphorus and sulfur in them.

"The next time we go back ... you're going to take something that not only picks up on the habitability story, but it starts looking for evidence for life". The Cassini team traces the source of hydrogen to the hydrothermal reactions of rocks.

This Science Magazine tells us about Saturn's sixth-largest moon, Enceladus, which has a diameter of approximately 500 km.

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