NASA has revealed that Saturn’s moon Enceladus could be packing conditions necessary for life – something that astronomers have been working on for quite sometime now.
Data from unmanned Cassini spacecraft indicate that there are hydrogen molecules in vapor plumes emanating from cracks in the surface of Enceladus, a small ocean moon coated in a thick layer of ice. These plumes possibly indicate that there are hydrothermal chemical reactions between the moon’s rocky core and its ocean – located under the ice crust – are likely occurring on Enceladus. The hydrogen molecules were detected by Cassini when it did a deep dive close to the surface of Enceladus in October 2015.
If we look at similar reactions on Earth, they allow for microbes to flourish in hot cracks in the planet’s ocean floors – depths sunlight cannot reach and this indicates that Saturn’s Enceladus could also nourish life putting it high on the list of celestial bodies in Solar System where life could be present.
The new research, published Thursday in the journal Science, “indicates there is chemical potential to support microbial systems,” scientists involved with the study.
Using a spectrometer, the spacecraft determined that the plumes are 98 percent water and one percent hydrogen, with traces of molecules including ammonia, carbon dioxide and methane. Hydrogen had previously been “elusive,” scientists said, but its detection shows the moon’s life-supporting potential.
The hydrogen in the sub-surface ocean could combine with carbon dioxide molecules in a process known as “methanogenesis,” which creates a byproduct of methane. If there are indeed microbes living in the moon’s ocean, they could tap that energy source as sustenance.
Scientists said the moon appeared to have ample energy supplies to support life – roughly the equivalent of 300 pizzas per hour, according to Christopher Glein, a geochemist at the Southwest Research Institute in Texas.
“This is the first time we’ve been able to make a calorie count of an alien ocean,” he said.
In a separate study published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope again found what is likely a plume emitting from Europa, one of Jupiter’s four largest moons, which also has an icy crust atop an ocean.
After first spotting the apparent plume in 2014, scientists in 2016 saw it in the same spot, which appears to be a particularly warm region of Europa where fissures occur in the icy crust.
Both studies are laying the foundation for the Europa Clipper mission, which is slated to launch in the 2020s.
The Europa Clipper will periodically fly past Jupiter’s Europa moon to collect data and study the subsurface ocean.