A hid­den habi­tat on ENCELADUS

A haven for life could ex­ist on the sub­sur­face sea's floor

Sky at Night Magazine - - BULLETIN -

Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus could be primed for life. Hints that there may be hy­dro­ther­mal vents on the floor of the sub­sur­face ocean, around which life could be thriv­ing, were found by NASA’s Cassini space­craft in Oc­to­ber 2015 when it dove through the gi­ant wa­ter plumes that erupt from the moon’s sur­face. The moon con­tains the right chem­i­cal mix­ture of wa­ter and el­e­ments nec­es­sary to cre­ate life, but un­til now there has been no known source of the en­ergy needed to kick-start the process.

“Hy­dro­gen is a source of chem­i­cal en­ergy for mi­crobes that live in the Earth’s oceans near hy­dro­ther­mal vents,” says Hunter Waite, prin­ci­pal in­ves­ti­ga­tor for Cassini’s Ion Neu­tral Mass Spec­trom­e­ter (INMS). “Our re­sults in­di­cate that the same chem­i­cal en­ergy source is present in the ocean of Enceladus.”

The probe’s INMS in­stru­ment found traces of molec­u­lar hy­dro­gen within the wa­ter plumes. On Earth, the el­e­ment is found near deep sea vents that pro­vide both the heat and min­er­als nec­es­sary to cre­ate life, and are of­ten teem­ing with mi­crobes.

“We have not found ev­i­dence of the pres­ence of mi­cro­bial life in the ocean of Enceladus, but the dis­cov­ery of hy­dro­gen gas and the ev­i­dence for on­go­ing hy­dro­ther­mal ac­tiv­ity of­fer a tan­ta­lis­ing sug­ges­tion that hab­it­able con­di­tions could ex­ist be­neath the moon’s icy crust,” said Waite.

Cassini will be un­able to study the moon fur­ther as the dis­cov­ery comes less than six months be­fore the end of the 12-year mis­sion. How­ever, the find could mean sim­i­lar vents ex­ist on Jupiter’s moon Europa, which will be vis­ited by both ESA’s Jupiter Icy Moon Ex­plorer (JUICE) and NASA’s Europa Clip­per in the next decade. See Com­ment, right

Life clus­ters around vents on the floors of Earth’s seas; it’s not a stretch to en­vis­age the same thing hap­pen­ing on Enceladus, or else­where

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