NASA says saturnal moon may harbor life

The "Europa Clipper" will take an ice-penetrating radar instrument to look through the icy crust on Europa and other instruments to take high-resolution images of the surface and to measure the moon's magnetic field, temperature, atmospheric particles and the depth and salinity of the ocean. The gas could be a chemical energy source of life, scientists involved with the mission said.

The findings are presented in papers published Thursday by researchers with NASA's Cassini mission to Saturn and Hubble Space Telescope. Scientists have long known about the plumes of water vapor spewing from cracks at the moon's south pole, thanks to Cassini. Earth has some of these on its sea floors, where hydrogen combined with carbon dioxide produces methane in a process called "methanogenesis", which is theorized to be a core component for microbial life on our planet.

Life on Earth needs three main ingredients to exist and flourish: liquid water, a source of energy for metabolism and the right chemicals, primarily carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur. During its last and deepest dive through Enceladus' plumes in October 2015, Cassini came within 49 kilometres of the moon's surface, looking for evidence of hydrogen.

NASA may have found the ingredients for sustainable life on Saturn's moon, Enceladus.

As the lead author Hunter Waite put it, the reaction would basically provide a "candy store for microbes". Now, this new detection along with a further revelation that Hubble has also just found additional evidence of plumes erupting from Jupiter's moon Europa, these results are tantalising close to answering whether we are indeed alone in the Universe or not. Although Europa was long suspected to have a global subsurface ocean, scientists only confirmed it past year after directly imaging what were suspected to be plumes erupting from the surface using the Hubble Space Telescope.

What are the primary ingredients that are needed for a place to sustain life?

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This chemical reaction, known as "metanogenesis", is a form of anaerobic respiration and is one of the steps in the development of life on Earth billions of years ago. By then, the composition of the plumes showed nearly every sign that ocean water had reacted chemically with heated rock - altering the minerals of the rocky silicate seabed while the water became rich in chemicals.

In 2015, researchers said that there was evidence of a warm ocean under the moon's surface, as NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reported. Like Enceladus, both plumes correspond to the location of an unusually warm region that is marked by features that could be cracks in the moon's icy crust. Mary Voytek, an astrobiology senior scientist for NASA, said her money is still on Europa because it is much older and any potential life there has had more time to emerge.

Triton, a moon of Neptune, might have a subsurface ocean, but this is a theory that requires confirmation.

"We're pushing the frontiers", says Dr. Jim Green, a NASA planetary scientist.

  • Tracy Ferguson