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Saturn Moon Enceladus Has Life-Supporting ‘Chemical Energy’: What Does This Mean In The Pursuit Of Earth-Like Life?

15 April 2017, 10:16 pm EDT By Kalyan Kumar Tech Times
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Even as efforts are picking up to find life on Mars, there is encouraging evidence that life-supporting chemical energy is present at Saturn's moon Enceladus.

According to the findings shared by NASA, the current indications hold the prospect of life in Enceladus as bright.

The topography of Enceladus is interesting — a surface covered with solid ice layers at an average thickness of 13 miles over the vast liquid-water ocean beneath.

According to the evidence collected by NASA's Cassini spacecraft and published by NASA in the journal Science, there is evidence that Enceladus harbors chemical energy enabling life.

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

The paper presents an exciting picture — the floor of Enceladus's ocean brimming with hot water vents similar to ecosystems in the deeper realms of Earth's oceans.

However, a costly mission to drill Enceladus may not be necessary as plumes are erupting from the icy surface of Enceladus with ample indications of the chemical signatures, noted Morgan Cable, a research scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

NASA had the first information on Enceladus housing a liquid water ocean in 2005. Cassini scientist Linda Spilker described the information as "tremendously exciting" because the reigning belief was that Enceladus was a solidly frozen terrain.

Cassini Probe And Plumes From Enceladus

NASA spacecraft Cassini has been orbiting Saturn since 2004 and its mission is set to end in another four months. The probe has been sending good data about the watery moon and has made it the top place to scout for life beyond Earth.

According to scientists, the outgoing plumes from Enceladus carry vital chemical signatures emerging from the interaction between water and rocky core deep down.

The presence of life-supporting hydrogen was detected by the Ion Neutral Mass Spectrometer onboard the Cassini spacecraft.

The detection of molecular hydrogen in the plume led to more analysis for broad identification of signals indigenous to Enceladus. The Cassini team traces the source of hydrogen to the hydrothermal reactions of rocks.

According to Cassini scientists, an abundance of hydrogen in the plume shows a thermodynamic disequilibrium favoring the formation of methane from carbon dioxide in Enceladus's ocean.

Signals Indicating Life Supporting Factors

It is surmised that the presence of hydrogen will obviously lead to a reaction with carbon dioxide for forming methane. In the deep seas of Earth, methane consumption by microbes is common and expecting a replay of the scenario in Enceladus is quite ideal.

Professor Hunter Waite, principal investigator for Cassini's Mass Spectrometer instrument, explained that water-rock interaction is happening between the ocean and the rocky core.

"It indicates there is chemical potential to support microbial systems," adds Waite, lead author of the paper.

When Cassini's findings of the disequilibrium of carbon dioxide, hydrogen and methane levels in the plume are extrapolated, it follows that an energy source that can be used by organisms is in sight.

Meanwhile, the final flyby of Cassini by Enceladus moon will happen on Saturday, April 22.

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