Ocean world near Saturn top contender for life beyond Earth


Stuck in a tidally-locked orbit around Saturn, NASA announced on Thursday the moon, Enceladus, has most of the building blocks to support life as we know it - two out of 60 moons ain't bad, right?

"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", he added.

During a news briefing held today, NASA has announced the spacecraft Cassini had found hydrogen as a gas - the form needed to support single-celled organisms in the moon's ocean. But when Cassini completed its first close flyby of the Saturn satellite in 2005, the mission's researchers were shocked to discover that the south pole of the moon was laced with warm fractures and covered with clouds of water vapour. "We now know Enceladus has almost all the ingredients needed for life as we know it", said NASA. 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. To prevent any chance that the spacecraft could eventually crash into Enceladus or any other moon, possibly contaminating a pristine environment, NASA has made a decision to crash the spacecraft into Saturn's atmosphere in September, vaporizing the probe in a kamikaze-like plunge.

"Most of us would be excited with any life, and certainly when we're talking about the sources of energy, this is to feed the base of a food web".

"Now, Enceladus is high on the list in the solar system for showing habitable conditions", said Hunter Waite, leader of the Cassini Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer team at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio and lead author of the Enceladus paper, according to the release.

NASA's space Hubble telescope has observed "probable" plumes erupting from Jupiter's moon Europa.

Not only that, but the plumes on Enceladus are associated with hotter regions on the moon.

Like Enceladus, Jupiter's moon Europa also has ocean plumes erupting. It could, very well, also have the same life-sustaining elements as Enceladus.

In 2015, researchers said that there was evidence of a warm ocean under the moon's surface, as NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reported. 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.

The spacecraft's instruments registered molecular hydrogen and carbon dioxide, two ingredients critical for methanogenesis.

Forty years ago, scientists on Earth found an astonishing oasis of life clustered around vents at the bottom of the ocean.

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

"If there are plumes on Europa, as we now strongly suspect, with the Europa Clipper we will be ready for them", said James Green, NASA's Planetary Science Division Director. The plan to terminate Cassini's mission is in part to prevent the spacecraft from accidently landing on any neighboring celestial bodies, where it could potentially contaminate life - or even jump start it.