Saturn moon has necessary conditions to harbour life

NASA's Cassini spacecraft said the icy, ocean-covered body possesses ample amounts of hydrogen gas. But deep in the ocean, some microbes derive energy from a totally difference source: a chemical process between warm water and rock that produces molecular hydrogen.

Zurbuchen added that the missions were getting humans closer to understanding whether they were "indeed alone or not".

The paper from researchers with the Cassini mission was published Thursday in the journal Science.

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. As it passed through, the craft detected hydrogen, carbon dioxide and methane which were in "thermodynamic disequilibrium".

Life on Earth needs three main ingredients to exist and flourish: liquid water, a source of energy for metabolism and the right chemicals, primarily carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur. Enceladus is the only one of Saturn's moons where scientists have found proof of an energy source for life.

While the Cassini spacecraft was unable to evidence the presence of sulfur and phosphorus on the tiny Enceladus, scientists suspect their presence in the satellite's ocean.

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

However, the scientists think that because the moon is young, there may not have been time for life to emerge. That byproduct can sustain life.

Waite said the hydrogen is likely produced "by chemical reactions between warm water and rocks".

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

"Some of the most primitive metabolic pathways utilized by microbes in these environments involve the reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) with H2 to form methane (CH4) by a process known as methanogenesis", Jeffrey Seewald wrote in an accompanying piece in the same Science magazine. 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.

Lunine said that although current cosmic exploration has found thousands of exoplanets in habitable zones, scientists are unsure whether the origin of life requires special circumstances, or more simply water, organics, minerals and energy.

Enceladus, which measures 313 miles across, is only the sixth largest of Saturn's moons, but when it comes to the search for life it's already the most exciting.

NASA is developing a mission to Europa known as Clipper that is still in the preliminary design phase but that would launch in the 2020s and reach Europa after a journey of "several years".

"After Hubble imaged this new plume-like feature on Europa, we looked at that location on the Galileo thermal map".

"That's just going to be a tremendous opportunity to test our theories and see if there's life there", said James L. Green, director of planetary science at NASA. This latest discovery may reactivate interest in sending a spacecraft dedicated to the study of this small (272-kilometer-radius) moon of Saturn.

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