NASA finds conditions for life on Saturn's moon

NASA: New insights into 'Ocean Worlds' provide proof we may not be alone

Researchers believe life could exist on Saturn's moon Enceladus around hydrothermal vents which are similar to those found at the bottom of the Earth's ocean.

The findings were reported Thursday in the journal Science by a team from Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.

Astronomers have announced the discovery of molecular hydrogen emanating from the plumes of Saturn's moon Enceladus.

We're finding new environments, ' said NASA's Planetary Science Division director, James Green.

"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 said in a statement. Molecular hydrogen in the plumes could serve as a marker for hydrothermal processes, which could provide the chemical energy necessary to support life. This could be a sign that microbes, assuming Enceladus has such alien life forms within, use the hydrogen as a source of energy, blending this element with dissolved carbon dioxide. This chemical reaction, known as "methanogenesis" because it produces methane as a byproduct, is at the root of the tree of life on Earth, and could even have been critical to the origin of life on our planet. It was long thought that the environment at such great depths was far too cold and hostile to support life. The scientists suspect that there are large quantities of liquid water below this surface, along with various chemical processes.

Cassini uncovered the hydrogen during its final close flyby of Enceladus in 2015, when it dove deeper than ever through its plumes of vapor and particles. Cassini also sampled the plume's composition during flybys earlier in the mission.

According to Cassini scientists, an abundance of hydrogen in the plume shows a thermodynamic disequilibrium favoring the formation of methane from carbon dioxide in Enceladus's ocean.

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The U.S. space agency NASA has identified a moon orbiting Saturn as a new candidate for potential life.

"The next time we go back ... you're going to take something that not only picks up on the habitability story, but it starts looking for evidence for life".

'Enceladus is high on the list in the solar system for showing habitable conditions, ' said lead author Hunter Waite.

Cassini has flown through the plumes several times to sample to study the phenomenon. These images bolster evidence that the Europa plumes could be a real phenomenon, flaring up intermittently in the same region on the moon's surface.

The topography of Enceladus is interesting - a surface covered with solid ice layers at an average thickness of 13 miles over the vast liquid-water ocean beneath. Researchers speculate that, like Enceladus, this could be evidence of water erupting from the moon's interior.

During its Enceladus dives, Cassini determined that the plumes consist mostly of water.

Cassini's discovery helps us to do that. Equipment on the Cassini probe detected some of the required conditions and building blocks for life on both moons. As Europa passes in front of Jupiter, any atmospheric features around the edge of the moon block some of Jupiter's light, allowing STIS to see the features in silhouette.

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