The main illustration shows Cassini diving through the Enceladus plume in 2015. New ocean world discoveries from Cassini and Hubble will help inform future exploration and the broader search for life beyond Earth. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
In a major press announcement, NASA announced Enceladus, Saturn’s moon, could support life thanks to the presence of hydrogen discovered.
Known as an “ocean-world,” Enceladus has been spewing off hydrogen from a plume, said Linda Spilker Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California during the press event.
The findings are the results of 12 years of investigation by the Cassini spacecraft and were released in a paper from researchers with the Cassini mission, published in the journal “Science.”
“It could be a potential source for energy from any microbes,” Spilker noted. “We now know that Enceladus has almost all of the ingredients you would need for life here on Earth.”
So far, Enceladus has shown to have the existence of nearly all of the elements of habitability (primarily carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur), except for phosphorus and sulfur. Scientists expect they are present due to Enceladus’ rocky core, which is thought to be chemically similar to meteorites, which contain both phosphorus and sulfur.
“This is the closest we’ve come, so far, to identifying a place with some of the ingredients needed for a habitable environment,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at Headquarters in Washington in a statement. ”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.”
Chris Glein, Cassini INMS team associate at SwRI, noted that the team thinks hydrothermic fluids are circulating on the floor od Enceladus’ ocean. The warm fluids, mixed with the ocean water, would cause mineral precipitates to form on the sea floor.
“When Cassini was first built, you never thought you’d see an active ocean floor,” Glein said. Spilker added that they don’t currently have the instruments to look for life on the moon and that Cassini has gone as far as it can go.
In addition, the Hubble Telescope observed that there was a probably plume of hydrogen released from Europa, the smallest of the four Gallilean moons orbiting Jupiter.
Observations were made in 2016, as well as 2014, which “bolster[s] evidence that the Europa plumes could be a real phenomenon, flaring up intermittently in the same region on the moon’s surface.”
Published April 13, 2017