Published: Tue, April 18, 2017
Science | By Hubert Green

Possible conditions for life discovered on Saturn moon

In September, Cassini will end a 13-year mission exploring Saturn and its entourage of 62 known moons.

The discovery of this chemical energy source means Enceladus is now the very best place to look for life outside of Earth, with conditions that could be just right for alien microbes to survive.

The US space agency NASA's Cassini spacecraft has discovered hydrogen in the plume of gas and icy particles spraying from Saturn's sixth largest moon Enceladus.

The probe found the hydrogen when it made its last and closest pass through plumes at Enceladus' south pole on October 28, 2015.

Cassini also sampled the plume's composition during flybys earlier in the mission.

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.

"Enceladus is high on the list in the solar system for showing habitable conditions", said Hunter Waite, the lead author of the study."There is chemical potential to support microbial systems".

"The new finding is hydrogen coming from the plume of Enceladus, and it could contain microbes from the sea floor of Enceladus", announced Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, at a press conference on Thursday.

Chemical analysis of the plume suggested conditions favourable for methanogenesis - the generation of methane by microbes that use hydrogen and carbon dioxide to obtain energy.

It turns out that Enceladus has every single of those ingredients necessary for the creation and maintenance and evolution of life. The others? Carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur in an environment with liquid water and an energy source. "With this finding, Cassini has shown that Enceladus - a small, icy moon a billion miles farther from the sun than Earth - has almost all of these ingredients for habitability".

NASA has reported that its Cassini spacecraft mission discovered interesting scientific results about some of the ice and ocean on moons of both Saturn and Jupiter, which have been the sources of increased scientific research. One of the Saturnian moon's most visible features is its ice plumes - enormous geysers that release water vapor into space.

NASA says the discovery will help it to better equip the Europa Clipper mission set for the 2020's when a probe will visit the moon to examine the plumes. It's set to launch sometime in the 2020s.

"This doesn't tell us whether life is there or not", astronomer Jonathan Lunine, from the Cornell Centre for Astrophysics and Planetary Science, told Gizmodo.

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