Saturn moon Enceladus could sustain alien life

Ice plumes shooting into space from the ocean-bearing moon contain hydrogen from hydrothermal vents, an environment that some scientists believe led to the rise of life on Earth.

He said Enceladus could feature buildups of precipitates on the ocean floor similar to so-called "white smokers" on Earth, which build up around warm-water vents and provide habitats for animal life beyond the reach of the sun. "This is a very significant finding because the hydrogen could be a potential source of chemical energy for any microbes that might be in the Enceladus ocean".

That's why she thinks it's actually more likely that they'll find life on Europa than Enceladus. Either way the implications are profound.

"This is the closest we've come, so far, to identifying a place with some of the ingredients needed for a habitable environment", said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for Nasa's Science Mission Directorate.

The US space agency has also released a video explaining that Saturn's icy moon Enceladus has all the basic ingredients for life.

Research suggesting the possibility of an ocean on Europa was published as early as 1977, after the Voyager mission saw long lines and dark spots, as opposed to a cratered surface similar to other moons.

Of course, life needs much more than just a source of energy: liquid water together with certain chemical compounds (carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulphur) are also required. Since NASA didn't even know about Enceladus' plumes, its subsurface ocean, and the potential for hydrothermal activity there until after Cassini had arrived at Saturn, the spacecraft isn't equipped with the right instruments to take the investigation any further. The microbes could combine the carbon dioxide in water and hydrogen to gain energy.

"The abundance of H2, along with previously observed carbonate species, suggests a state of chemical disequilibria in the Enceladus ocean that represents a chemical energy source capable of supporting life", Jeffrey Seewald, of the Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry Department at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in MA, wrote in an accompanying "Perspectives" piece in the same issue of Science. The new research is published April 14 in Science.

The administration plans to send a spacecraft called Clipper to Jupiter's water-covered moon Europa in the 2020s to investigate whether conditions there are suitable for life.

NASA's space Hubble telescope has observed "probable" plumes erupting from Jupiter's moon Europa. Enceladus has nearly every single one of these ingredients, except for phosphorous and sulfur, although scientists believe they may be somewhere in its inner ocean, as the moon's core is believed to be similar in its composition to meteorites that do contain both chemicals. At a press conference last week, scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) reviewed some of Cassini's key findings to date, including the plumes from Enceladus, a small moon that has a liquid ocean under an icy crust.

There are believed to be oceans on three of the moons of Jupiter, including Ganymede, Callisto and Europa. Water, ice, traces of methane, salts and other carbon compounds were found as well as silicates and hydrogen, according to a report from The Guardian.

Enceladus has a diameter of 310 miles (500 km) and is one of Saturn's innermost moons.

Hubble Space Telescope images of possible plumes on Jupiter's moon Europa.

  • Tracy Ferguson