Ocean World Near Saturn Hotter-than-Ever Contender for Life

16 April, 2017, 00:51 | Author: Bridget Leonard
  • Enlarge Image Hubble observed plumes at the same location on Europa in 2014 and 2016.                  NASA  ESA  W. Sparks /USGS Astrogeology Science Center

In the never-ending quest to discover that Earth is not a lone producer of life in the universe, scientists have found that the sixth largest moon of Saturn, Enceladus, holds the potential to sustain living organisms, much the same way that hydrothermal vents deep in the ocean sustain an ecosystem.

"If there are plumes on Europa, as we now strongly suspect, with the Europa Clipper we will be ready for them", said Jim Green, Director of Planetary Science, at NASA Headquarters. NASA's Cassini spacecraft has detected hydrogen molecules in the geysers shooting off the ice-encrusted ocean world, possibly the result of deep-sea chemical reactions between water and rock that could spark microbial life, according to findings announced Thursday, April 13, 2017 in the journal Science.

The findings on Saturn's moon Enceladus are more solid, scientifically speaking. This chemical reaction, known as "methanogenesis" because it produces methane as a byproduct, is key to forming life.

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

As for Jupiter's moon Europa, the observation is less definitive and more remote, coming from the Hubble Space Telescope.

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.

NASA officials said Cassini detected the hydrogen during one of its final dives through a plume of material spraying from Enceladus in October 2015. On three previous flybys, scientists had managed to measure the composition of the jets' material, and detected molecules of water, carbon dioxide, methane, and ammonia.

Due to the finding, NASA directed Casini to plunge through this vapor which collected thousands of particles using instruments such as the Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS).

The Cassini craft was not created to detect signs of life, and scientists did not know the plume existed until they received data showing its existence.

Lead scientist Dr Hunter Waite said the result showed the moon's environment would be "like a candy store for microbes" with a constant and plentiful food source. The chemical analysis suggests the seafloor of the ocean has hot fluid vents that keep the ocean liquid, warm, and hospitable to life.

This is now the third detection of plumes near the southern polar region of Europa.

A similar plume was spotted two years earlier and both originate in the same area where surface temperatures are slightly higher. The map is based on observations by the Galileo spacecraft. "We want to protect those moons from any bacteria that may be carried on the spacecraft from the Earth, so it's still a pristine environment". He led the 2014 and 2016 plume studies. Data from the Cassini spacecraft already have indicated that Saturn's moon Enceladus has an ocean that spews into space through cracks in its icy crust.

Nor does anyone know whether Enceladuss ocean is as acidic as the study proposes, says David Catling of the University of Washington, Seattle. The Europa Clipper mission is set to launch to Europa in the 2020s.


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