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Saturn's Moon Enceladus Has The 'Chemical Energy' To Support Life: NASA Reveals

14 April 2017, 8:03 am EDT By Anu Passary Tech Times
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NASA’s Cassini mission, which has been probing Saturn since 2004, found elements supporting life on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. NASA revealed that Enceladus had the 'chemical energy' to support life.  ( Jet Propulsion Lab | NASA )

On Thursday, April 14, NASA shared that "chemical energy," existed on Enceladus, which may support life on Staurn's icy moon.

The evidence was collected by NASA's Cassini spacecraft, which has been examining Saturn and its satellites since 2004, providing Earth-bound researchers with important data.

The space agency presented its findings in a paper, which was published on April 13 in the journal Science. In the paper, the Cassini scientists shared that Enceladus has a type of chemical energy, which life can feed on.

"This is the closest we've come, so far, to identifying a place with some of the ingredients needed for a habitable environment," shared Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at Headquarters in Washington.

Zurbuchen added that the missions were getting humans closer to understanding whether they were "indeed alone or not."

Evidence Collected By Cassini

The Cassini mission researchers revealed that hydrogen is pouring into Enceladus' subsurface ocean because of hydrothermal activity occurring on the sea floor. This gas could possibly act as a source of chemical energy for life forms.

The presence of hydrogen on Enceladus' ocean suggests that if any microbes are present, they could use the gas to get energy. The microbes could combine the carbon dioxide in water and hydrogen to gain energy.

This process, where microbes break down the hydrogen and release methane as a byproduct, is known as methanogenesis. 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.

For life to persist on any planet, it needs three vital energy sources: liquid water, right chemical ingredients (hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, carbon, and phosphorus), and an energy source for metabolism.

Cassini's findings reveal that the ice-covered Enceladus has pretty much all the elements required to support life forms.

While the Cassini spacecraft was unable to evidence the presence of sulfur and phosphorus on the tiny Enceladus, scientists suspect their presence in the satellite's ocean. This is because the rocky core of the icy Saturn moon is believed to have similar chemical properties to meteorites, which contain both sulfur and phosphorus.

How Did The Cassini Spacecraft Detect Hydrogen?

The Cassini spacecraft perceived the presence of hydrogen in the gas plumes and other materials, which were emanating from Enceladus. This was detected during the spacecraft's final and deep dive amid the plume on October 28, 2015.

During earlier flybys, the spacecraft also sampled the gas plumes' composition. The data gathered by the Cassini aided scientists to determine that roughly 98 percent of the gas present in the plume is composed of water. The plumes include 1 percent hydrogen and the remainder is a combination of molecules such as ammonia, carbon di oxide, and methane.

The scientists measured the gases using the Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer instrument belonging to the space craft. The INMS smells gases to ascertain their composition. This instrument was designed to examine the upper atmosphere of Titan, another of Saturn's 62 known moons.

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

The latest findings that Enceladus could support life forms evidences that hydrothermal activities are occurring in its ocean.

Older results have suggested that the hot water is intermingling with the rock underneath the sea. The latest findings support this assertion and note that the rock is likely creating chemical reactions, which lead to the production of hydrogen.

Though the findings did not provide any direct evidence for supporting life forms, the researchers note that the discovery has shared the presence of a food source for the microbes, which would possibly be like a "candy store" for them.

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