Could life exist on Saturn’s moon Enceladus?

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Could life exist on Saturn’s moon Enceladus?

It's apparently the only world in our solar system (other than Earth, obvs) with all the things we need for life, with recent readings from a Nasa probe revealing a natural satellite pumping organic molecules - a precursor to microbial life - from its liquid subsurface ocean.

While this isn't concrete proof of life on Enceladus, the discovery of complex molecules, combined with liquid water and hydrothermal activity, means it is possible.

On Earth, hydrogen is the chemical source of energy that sustains the life of the microbes found near hydrothermal vents, deep into the oceans.

As National Geographic reports, before the Saturn-exploring Cassini spacecraft committed suicide in 2017 by plunging itself into Saturn's atmosphere, it had sent back mountains of data - data that is still being crunched to this day.

The Cassini spacecraft first flew close to the ice-covered moon in 2005 as part of a mission to gather data on Saturn that will be analyzed for years to come. One of the authors of the study, Christopher Glein, is a space scientist specializing in extraterrestrial chemical oceanography at the Southwest Research Institute.

The paper's findings also have great significance for the next generation of exploration, Glein said, adding that a future spacecraft could fly through the plume of Enceladus, and analyse those complex organic molecules using a high-resolution mass spectrometer to help scientists determine how they were made.

By working together, each with their own data set, the CDA and INMS teams achieved a better understanding of the organic chemistry in Enceladus's ocean than either of the teams would have done with just their own data set, Glenn noted. Previously, Cassini detected lighter, gassy molecules such as methane and ethane, which contain one or two carbon atoms and a smattering of hydrogens; these molecules weigh in at around 15 atomic mass units.

The results, led by Frank Postberg and Nozair Khawaja of the University of Heidelberg, Germany, were published this week in the journal Nature. Molecular hydrogen in the plume is thought to form by the geochemical interaction between water and rocks in hydrothermal environments. The team of scientists who discovered the particles deduced that these materials rose on the ocean surface and in cracks of vents initially as a thin film originating beneath the icy shells. "Then, they can be transported upwards to the ocean surface on the walls of rising bubbles of gas". There may well be huge polymers - many-segmented molecules such as those that make up DNA and proteins - still waiting to be discovered.

Earlier, Cassini had captured small, relatively common organic molecules at Enceladus, consisting of hundreds of atoms are rare beyond Earth.

A similar process on the surface of Enceladus's ocean may form ice crystals with organics at their core, Postberg said.

"What we know today is telling us that Enceladus is an outstanding target to go look for life, and there may be microbes living in that ocean today", says Cornell University's Jonathan Lunine.

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