Is Saturn’s moon Enceladus capable of sustaining alien life? It’s far too soon to conclude that that is the case, but new findings from NASA’s Cassini probe suggest that the icy moon just might have those so-called “ingredients of life” scientists look for when studying other planets.
According to NASA’s official press release, two papers were published on Thursday, detailing how the Cassini mission had found a “form of chemical energy” that, in theoretical terms, could sustain life on Enceladus. Hubble Space Telescope scientists had also come up with similar findings when studying another planet’s moon – Jupiter’s moon Europa.
Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the space agency’s Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement that the findings on Europa and Enceladus may not point to alien life, but may provide further proof that Earth isn’t the only place in the universe whose features include at least some of the required ingredients in the recipe of life.
“This is the closest we’ve come, so far, to identifying a place with some of the ingredients needed for a habitable environment. These results demonstrate the interconnected nature of NASA’s science missions that are getting us closer to answering whether we are indeed alone or not.”
— BuzzFeed (@BuzzFeed) April 13, 2017
Among the two papers, the Cassini scientists’ paper holds a lot of promise, as it points to hydrogen gas pouring into Enceladus’ underground ocean and originating from “hydrothermal activity” on the seafloor. This could be a sign that microbes, assuming Enceladus has such alien life forms within, use the hydrogen as a source of energy, blending this element with dissolved carbon dioxide. This phenomenon is called “methanogenesis,” due to the fact that the process results in the creation of methane.
Cassini mission team associate Chris Glein added in a press conference, as quoted by the Daily Mail, that the data from Enceladus is especially interesting, as it now allows scientists to find out how much energy is generated by the moon’s methanogenesis reactions.
“We have made the first calorie count in an alien ocean.”
The Verge wrote that this is similar to how Earth’s oceans have their own hot spots called hydrothermal vents, where microbes could breed thanks to the blending of extremely cold ocean water and hot magma. This blending results in the creation of hydrogen, among other substances, that emerge from the hydrothermal vents.
Scientists believe that these chemical reactions are what helped microbial life originate in Earth’s earlier years; if the vents on Enceladus work the same way, it’s possible alien life may be originating in microbial form as well, if it hasn’t originated yet.
At this point, however, the possibility of life existing on Enceladus is still speculative. NASA pointed out in its press release that this moon of Saturn has almost all of the ingredients of life, but not all of them. The Cassini mission has yet to spot phosphorus and sulfur in Enceladus’ oceans, but researchers are confident that those elements are present, due to the moon’s rocky core being similar in chemical composition to meteorites with phosphorus and sulfur in them.
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“Confirmation that the chemical energy for life exists within the ocean of a small moon of Saturn is an important milestone in our search for habitable worlds beyond Earth,” said Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker.
Aside from Cassini’s hints that Enceladus may potentially support alien life due to its ocean’s features, NASA also noted that the Hubble Space Telescope team had spotted a “probable plume of material” erupting from the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. This sighting took place in 2016, two years after Hubble made a similar discovery at the same warm region of the moon. Researchers believe that this could be a sign of water erupting and warming its surrounding surface, providing a “tempting target” for NASA’s Europa mission to look at and further analyze.
Still, with Saturn’s moon looking like a better candidate for extraterrestrial microbes, Cassini deputy project scientist Scott Edgington believes that NASA should deploy a spacecraft specifically designed to explore Enceladus and find signs of alien life, specifically in one of the moon’s “tiger stripes,” or large cracks on its south pole. He also told The Verge that he’d be excited to “go there (himself) and drill through” to see how the moon’s ocean looks like.
[Featured Image by NASA]