Published: Fri, April 14, 2017
Sci-tech | By Jose Becker

Ocean world near Saturn hotter-than-ever contender for life


On Earth, hydrothermal vents are home to numerous unique life forms, such as giant tube worms, shrimp with eyes on their backs and thousands of microbes.

While Cassini is reaching the end of its life, NASA has already confirmed that it will be sending a probe to Europa, another "ocean world" orbiting Jupiter that has numerous same characteristics as Enceladus.

The paper published by the Cassini researchers indicate "hydrogen gas, which could potentially provide a chemical energy source for life, is pouring into the subsurface ocean of Enceladus from hydrothermal activity on the seafloor", NASA wrote in a press release.

According to Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's associate administrator for Science Mission Directorate at Headquarters in Washington, the results collected by the Cassini probe represented the closest humankind has ever gotten to identifying a place with the ingredients to sustain life.

So does that mean Europa or Enceladus could be home to populations of alien squids and shrimp?

NASA stresses the findings, that were announced in the journal Science, do not mean that there is life on either moon, but that there may be favourable conditions to harbour life. The Hubble Space Telescope spotted plumes on Europa, suggesting powerful thermal sources on the moon's surface.

An illustration of NASA's Cassini spacecraft flying through the water plumes of Enceladus, an icy moon that orbits Saturn.

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"Although we can't detect life, we've found that there's a food source there for it".

Scientists have detected a similar plume on Europa, Jupiter's moon. These new findings show that Enceladus "has almost all of these ingredients for habitability". But NASA's New Frontiers program is holding a competition for its next mission, and Enceladus is a potential target.

Cassini, on its final mission before it runs out of fuel and is allowed to burn up its space, was sent diving deep into the jets.

Two NASA spacecraft discovered plumes of water vapor erupting from the moons of Saturn and Jupiter - kind of like geysers here on earth. He ticked off several of the ingredients necessary for life that have been found on Enceladus, including water and key elements such as carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen.

A new mission will launch in the 2020s and arrive at Europa after a few years. Cassini detected a large amount of hydrogen molecules coming out of the ice surface on Enceladus, which is the sixth-largest moon circling Saturn.

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.

"We re finding new environments", said James Green, NASA s Planetary Science Division Director.

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