NASA scientists have discovered key ingredients for life in geysers on the surface of Saturn’s moon, Enceladus, the space agency said Thursday.
The data was collected by the Cassini spacecraft that has been orbiting Saturn since 2004. Scientists have theorized that Enceladus contains a vast ocean of liquid water under its icy surface but the new research shows the moon may have locations similar to habitats on Earth.
It appears hydrogen gas is pouring into Enceladus’ ocean from geothermal activity closer to the center of the moon. The gas warms the water and could provide an energy source for microbial life – some creatures living deep in the Earth’s oceans survive in a strikingly similar environment.
The research published Thursday in the journal Science was conducted by NASA, Cornell University and Johns Hopkins University.
“This is the closest we've come, so far, to identifying a place with some of the ingredients needed for a habitable environment,” associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate Thomas Zurbuchen said in a statement. ”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.”
Hydrogen was detected by Cassini’s instruments in a massive plume of water that spouted from Enceladus’ surface in 2015. The plume extended about 100 kilometers (62 miles) above the surface.
The hydrogen, liquid water and evidence of geothermal warming now makes Enceladus the most likely candidate for harboring alien life in the solar system, according to scientists.
By Barry Eitel in San Francisco