Enceladus, one of the moons of Saturn, may have an abundance of food for microbes. NASA’s Cassini spacecraft discovered that an ocean beneath the icy surface regularly erupted jets of water ice and vapor. These jets of ice and steam seem to have hydrogen gas, which may be another sign of life on the microbial level.
Enceladus is Saturn’s sixth-largest moon. It is mostly covered in ice with a surface temperature of -324 degree Fahrenheit. With a broad range of surfaces, William Herschel discovered Enceladus in 1789. Not much was known about the moon until Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 passed by it in the early 1980s. Cassini was launched in 2005 and has done multiple flybys to gather information on the moon. Recently, the spacecraft discovered the ice plumes in the southern polar region. It is in these icy plumes where Cassini discovered the hydrogen gas.
Speaking with Science News, planetary scientist Hunter Waite from San Antonio, Texas’ Southwest Research Institute and the lead author of the study said that while his team is not explicitly saying the moon has life, it does push Enceladus “higher on the list of potentially habitable places in the solar system.” Science reported that the icy moon was now one of the “top candidates for hosting life elsewhere in the solar system.” In a NASA press release, Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate said that the discovery was the “closest” NASA has come to finding a place for “habitable environment.”
In one of Cassini’s many passes around Enceladus, Waite’s team of researchers found methane, formaldehyde, and hydrogen gas. In the research paper published in Science, the authors theorized that these vents were similar to those found on Earth that “spew hydrogen gas and support rich microbial life.” Scientists remain puzzled by the gas, Gabriel Tobie, another planetary scientist unaffiliated with Waite’s study said that there might be “something special” happening with Enceladus.
For the time being, NASA is concentrating on finding life on another moon, Jupiter’s Europa. Other places in the universe ripe for alien life include Ceres, Pluto, and Titan reported Business Insider. Cassini, which is in its final stages of its mission, will run out of fuel. Science News reported that to prevent the contamination of Enceladus or the neighboring moon of Titan, NASA researchers are readying its orbit around Saturn before its “deadly plunge into [Saturn’s] atmosphere in September.
By Cheryl Werber
Photo Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech