Saturn moon has necessary conditions to harbor life

Delia Watkins
April 16, 2017

The water is believed to be heated by what is known as "tidal heat", a condition generated by Saturn's huge gravitational pull as it twists and stretches the 313-mile-wide (504 kilometers) moon as it orbits the gas giant.

The hydrogen found in the icy plumes erupting from the moon's surface have nearly all the necessary ingredients to support life on Earth, said Linda Spilker, one of the scientists working with the unmanned Cassini mission, which has been orbiting Saturn since 2004, said at a press conference. The Cassini team published a research paper showing that there is a chemical source of energy on Saturn's moon, Enceladus.

In 2015, NASA's Cassini spacecraft was launched into a plume of gas and ice spraying form the south pole of one of Saturn's moons.

Using a spectrometer, the spacecraft determined that the plumes are 98% water and one percent hydrogen, with traces of molecules including ammonia, carbon dioxide and methane.

The scientists noted that "life as we know it requires three primary ingredients": liquid water, a source of energy for metabolism, and a combination of chemical ingredients that include hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen, among others.

Enceladus has a diameter of 500 kilometers (310 miles.) The heat needed to keep its ocean from freezing is believed to come from tidal forces exerted by Saturn and a neighboring larger moon, Dione.

That is the question NASA scientists are asking after an incredible discovery on Enceladus, a moon of the planet Saturn.

"We're moving towards Enceladus's ocean being habitable, but we're not making any claims at this point about it being inhabited", lead author Hunter Waite, with the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, said in an interview.

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And on Jupiter's moon Europa, that Hubble Space Telescope has spotted an huge plume above its icy crust.

Not only that, but the plumes on Enceladus are associated with hotter regions on the moon.

These composite images show a suspected plume of material erupting two years apart from the same location on Jupiter's icy moon Europa.

For that we will need a purpose-built mission, such as the Enceladus Life Finder (ELF). When dissolved carbon dioxide reacts with dissolved hydrogen, it produces methane and water.

The researchers say if the plumes and the warm spot are linked, it could mean water being vented from beneath the moon's icy crust is warming the surrounding surface.

Forty years ago, scientists on Earth found an astonishing oasis of life clustered around vents at the bottom of the ocean. The Hubble space telescope is observing Europa from a distance for evidence of plumes of water, similar to the ones seen on Enceladus. "We're finding new environments", said James Green, NASA s Planetary Science Division Director. Close-up measurements will have to wait until the 2020s when NASA plans to launch missions whose entire objective is investigating Europa.

The moon Enceladus is of special interest. This will end with Cassini burning up in Saturn's atmosphere.

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