NASA Details 'Ocean Worlds' in the Solar System

NASA  JPL-Caltech

Life requires liquid water, a source of energy for metabolism and the right chemical ingredients-primarily carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur and the Cassini has shown that Enceladus-a small, icy moon a billion miles farther from the sun than Earth-has almost all of these ingredients for habitability.

Saturn's ocean-bearing moon Enceladus taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera.

"It could support... microbes with energy", said Linda Spilker, a Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, during a press conference today.

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

The discovery of extraterrestrial life in the universe would be a game-changing milestone for science, and new findings revealed by NASA on Thursday give hope we could still uncover that evidence in our own solar system.

The detection of hydrogen gas in the plumes of Enceladus is suggestive that like Earth, hydrogen is pouring into the Moon's subsurface ocean from hydrothermal activity on the seafloor.

Cassini has detected hydrogen molecules in vapour plumes emanating from cracks in the surface of Enceladus, a small ocean moon coated in a thick layer of ice, the United States space agency said. "This hydrogen is a good source of chemical energy to support life".

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David Rothery, Professor of Planetary Geosciences at the Open University, said: "Life has not been discovered on Enceladus, but we do now have the last piece of evidence needed to demonstrate that life is possible there".

This is the closest scientists have come to identifying a place having the ingredients for life, said Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator of the NASA Science Mission Directorate. A possible plume of material has also been spotted erupting from the surface of Europa previous year, in the same place that one was spotted by Hubble in 2014.

Hydrogen levels were also high enough to imply the planet produces a continual source and may host hydrothermal activity under its icy surface.

"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". The discovery of hydrogen plumes means Enceladus has nearly all of those factors.

In 2015, the American space agency's Cassini probe made a deep dive into a geyser-like plume of water and other material erupting from cracks in the south polar region of Enceladus. This process was integral to the origination of life on Earth and it is believed, methanogenesis may have been pivotal to the formation of life on our planet. Plus, Hubble spies a plume on Europa for the second time.

However, post the discovery of the icy spray by Cassini in 2005, the researchers shifted the detectors toward Enceladus.

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