Saturn's Moon Enceladus May be Able to Support Life

Fagjun | Published 2017-04-17 02:45

NASA has found evidence that Enceladus, one of Saturn's many moons, has most of the conditions necessary for supporting life as we know it.

Scientists say that this does not mean that life has developed on the tiny moon. However, life may be able to thrive due to the environmental conditions present.

Enceladus is a small moon, with diameter of just 500 kilometers. It can even fit into the states of Arizona or Colorado. It has a surface of clean ice, which makes the moon the most reflective body in the solar system.

A size comparison: Saturn's tiny moon is that white dot under our moon.
[Photo by NASA/JPL]

Enceladus: An Anatomy

There are also subsurface saltwater oceans just under that surface of ice. In 2005, scientists noticed that there are plumes of water vapor shooting up out of the ice in geysers. It turned out that these plumes are what formed Saturn's E Ring. This discovery alone was quite fascinating enough as it is, but these water vapor plumes had more to reveal.

Saturn's E Ring with the moon in question in its midst.
[Photo by NASA/JPL]

In 2015, the spacecraft Cassini did a flyby around the moon and got close enough to make a surprising discovery. Cassini found that these plumes also contain hydrogen. Scientists say that the only plausible source for this hydrogen is hydrothermal vents deep in the subsurface oceans. If this is true, then Enceladus has active sources of energy that may be similar to the hydrothermal vents on Earth.

An artist's concept of hydrothermal activity on the small Saturnine moon.
[Photo by NASA/JPL]

The presence of hydrogen indicates that the moon has the energy to support simple life forms. It also indicates that chemicals that feed microbes are present on the moon.

Cassini also found traces of methane and carbon compounds in the water vapor plumes, aside from water, ice, and salt.

Proof of Life

There are three ingredients that made life on Earth possible. The first is water, which both the Earth and Enceladus have quite a lot of. The second is organic molecules like carbon compounds. Finally, the third is a source of energy.

All three are present on the tiny moon, which indicates that it can support microbial life. Hydrogen and carbon dioxide, which were present in the water vapor Cassini analyzed, are vital ingredients in methanogenesis. Methanogenesis is a reaction that keeps microbes deep in Earth's oceans alive. It's one of the oldest metabolic processes on Earth, and even predates photosynthesis.

Enceladus isn't the only Saturnine moon that may be able to host life. There may also be organic molecules on Europa, another one of Saturn's moons. Europa also has vapor plumes much like those on its smaller lunar neighbor. NASA will be sending a probe within the coming decade to analyze the plumes on Europa.

You can read about Cassini's findings here.

Hey! Where are you going?? Subscribe!

Get weekly science updates in your inbox!