Thursday, 19 October, 2017

Saturn moon ocean top contender for life beyond Earth

Saturn's moon Enceladus Saturn's moon Enceladus
Garry Little | 15 April, 2017, 06:09

Could there be life under the icy surface of Saturn's moon Enceladus?

Recently NASA scientists have observed some water like particles floating in and around the icy Moon of Saturn, Enceladus.

It is already known that three crucial ingredients are required for life to exist - water, right chemical matters which are the building blocks of life like carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulphur and a source of energy for metabolism.

Scientists additionally introduced new proof that Jupiter's moon Europa - more than six times greater than Enceladus - could have occasional emissions like ones originating from Saturn's moon.

On the Earth's ocean floor, hydrothermal vents emit hot, mineral-laden fluid, allowing unique ecosystems teeming with unusual creatures to thrive.

The hydrogen in the sub-surface ocean could combine with carbon dioxide molecules in a process known as "methanogenesis", which creates a byproduct of methane.

What NASA's Cassini spacecraft found "would be like a candy store for microbes", said Hunter Waite, lead author of the new study out this week.

"If there are plumes on Europa, as we now strongly suspect, with the Europa Clipper we will be ready for them", said James Green, NASA's Planetary Science Division Director.

Cassini scientists detected hydrogen molecules - which could potentially provide a chemical energy source for life - in water pouring into the subsurface ocean of Enceladus from hydrothermal activity on the seafloor.

Scientists at the Goddard Space Center compared ultraviolet photos the Hubble space telescope took of Europa in 2014, when it first saw the gaseous spray emanating from the moon, and found it again in a 2016 picture.

The Cassini spacecraft detected the hydrogen in a plume of gas and icy material spraying off Enceladus in October 2015. According to a paper by Cassini mission researchers, the moon is ejecting plumes of what turned out to be 98% water, 1% hydrogen, and other gases, including carbon dioxide, methane, and amonia. Through cracks on the fa├žade of this frostbitten moon, misty plumes jet above the surface.

The observations were made previous year at the same location that the Hubble telescope saw evidence of a plume in 2014. Comparing it with thermal map that NASA's Galileo mission gathered in the 1990s, Hubble scientists discovered that the location corresponds to a thermal anomaly on Europa, a warm region on the otherwise frozen moon.

Sparks and his team are continuing to use Hubble to monitor Europa for additional examples of plume candidates and hope to determine the frequency with which they appear.

"The presence of hydrogen established another reference point saying there is hydrothermal activity inside this body, and that's interesting because we know in our own oceans, those are very important places that are teeming with life, and they are probably one of the earliest places where life happened on Earth".

"Most of us would be excited with any life", said Mary Voytek, an astrobiology senior scientist for NASA.

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