Saturn moon has necessary conditions to harbor life

Cassini has found that nearly all of these ingredients are there on Enceladus, a tiny icy moon at a distance of a billion miles away from Saturn.

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.

'These results demonstrate the interconnected nature of NASA's science missions that are getting us closer to answering whether we are indeed alone or not'.

The research is published a paper in the journal Science and it is noted that hydrogen gas is a potential "chemical energy source for life" and has been found present in the plumes. From additional Cassini observations, scientists concluded that not only is there a pool of water near the south pole of Enceladus to generate the plumes, but a global ocean that lies beneath the moon's ice.

Analysis has shown the plumes mainly to consist of tiny particles of water ice, with traces of methane, ammonia, carbon dioxide, salts, and simple organic molecules.

A liquid ocean exists beneath the icy surface of Enceladus, which is barely 300 miles (500 kilometers) across.

A model of the reactions that NASA scientists say may be happening below the icy surface of Saturn's moon Enceladus.

This discovery is particularly exciting because it makes Enceladus the only place beyond earth where scientists have discovered direct evidence of a possible source of life.

"Now, Enceladus is high on the list in the solar system for showing habitable conditions", said Hunter Waite, one of the study's leading researchers. Water is believed to exist on three Saturn moons as well, Enceladus, Titan, and Mimas.

A moon of Jupiter, Enceladus is a "water world", covered by oceans of liquid water trapped under a layer of ice.

Cassini will end its mission in September and as NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports, it "doesn't have the instruments needed to look for life itself" on Enceladus. This chemical reaction, known as "methanogenesis" because it produces methane as a byproduct, is key to forming life.

Older results have suggested that the hot water is intermingling with the rock underneath the sea. 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.

Underwater vents on Enceladus may resemble the ones seen on Earth's ocean floors, where microbes and other sea life congregate in or near the superheated water, often at extreme depths.

A new mission will launch in the 2020s and arrive at Europa after a few years.

One of the moons of Saturn could support life, scientists believe. "So we're going to start with bacteria and if we get lucky, maybe there's something that's larger", NASA astrobiology senior scientist Mary Voytek said at a news conference. The final step is the molecular hydrogen being produced, which has the chemical energy to support microbial systems in the ocean.

"These observations are really informing us of major things happening in these ocean worlds right now", Jim Green, director of planetary science at NASA Headquarters in Washington, told reporters.

  • Essie Rivera