Saturn's moon Enceladus harbours chemical energy for life

On Earth, those chemical reactions allow microbes to flourish in hot cracks in the planet's ocean floors - depths sunlight cannot reach - meaning the moon could also nourish life.

Cassini was not created to detect life in Enceladus' plumes, and NASA scientists said Thursday that new missions are needed to answer questions about potential life in our solar system's "ocean worlds".

Molecular hydrogen was detected by NASA's Cassini spacecraft as it made its last pass through the plumes of the moon Enceladus in October 2015.

Regardless, this is just more evidence to add onto today's case that life beyond Earth is more likely than you think. Either way the implications are profound.

According to the associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Thomas Zurbuchen, this is the closest humanity has come so far to identify a place with some of the ingredients required to support life. Now, the American space agency has announced that Saturn's moon Enceladus is a habitable world because it has almost all the ingredients to support 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.

The data suggest that Enceladus and Europa have geographies that could foster life-a salty ocean atop a rocky core that's providing an energy source in the form of hydrothermal venting.

There are three essential ingredients for life: water, a source of energy for metabolism, and a mixture of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulphur.

But in 2005 the unmanned Cassini spacecraft was orbiting Saturn when it picked up plumes of vapour coming from the "tiger stripes", or deep fissures, in the moon's surface. At Lost City and elsewhere, microbes consume hydrogen and carbon dioxide to make energy, which they spend on making essentials such as proteins.

Though Cassini does not have instruments capable of actually finding signs of life, "we've found that there's a food source there for it", said Waite.

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.

Update: NASA's Hubble telescope was also able to find evidence of an erupting plume back in 2016 during its orbit, further confirming the findings of Cassini's mission as legit.

The plumes are 98 percent water, scientists said, with traces of molecules including ammonia, carbon dioxide and methane.

In a major announcement on Thursday, scientists published research analyzing the ice plumes shooting into space from Saturn's moon Enceladus.

Europa is about the same size as Earth's moon, but holds more water than Earth, Sparks said.

The plumes on Europa are an attractive site for future robotic explorations of the subsurface ocean.

The newly imaged plume rises about 62 miles (100 kilometers) above Europa's surface, while the one observed in 2014 was estimated to be about 30 miles (50 kilometers) high. Here's more info on that mission and Europa as a whole.

Both presumed plume sightings "correspond to the location of an unusually warm region that contains features that appear to be cracks in the moon's icy crust, seen in the late 1990s by NASA's Galileo spacecraft", NASA said in a statement.

  • Essie Rivera