Saturn's moon Enceladus harbours chemical energy for life

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The assessment comes on the heels of new observations at the 500km-wide world made by the Cassini probe.

"This distant moon now joins Mars and Europa as the best potential locations for life beyond Earth in our solar system", said Andrew Coates, a professor of physics at University College London.

Scientists have found signs of potentially life-supporting chemical energy in a plume of liquid erupting from the surface of one of Saturn's moons and, for a second time, have also spotted a similar, intriguing fountain on one of Jupiter's moons, NASA announced Thursday.

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.

Zurbuchen added that the missions were getting humans closer to understanding whether they were "indeed alone or not".

These reactions depend on the presence of molecular hydrogen (H2), which, the new study reports, is likely being produced continuously by reactions between hot water and rock deep down in Enceladus' sea.

It shows similarities to Earth's hydrothermal vents, which supports microbial life on the ocean floor through the chemical energy from hydrogen.

It is already known that three crucial ingredients are required for life to exist - water, right chemical matters which are the building blocks of life like carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulphur and a source of energy for metabolism. The findings suggest that Enceladus has an ocean below its surface similar to the one believed to exist on Europa, one of Jupiter's moons.

More news: Spray from Saturn's moon suggests it could support life

In a related perspective, Jeffrey Seewald of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who was not involved in the study, described the findings as "an important advance in assessing the habitability of Enceladus". A possible plume of material has also been spotted erupting from the surface of Europa a year ago, in the same place that one was spotted by Hubble in 2014. The water is believed to be heated by what is known as "tidal heat", a condition generated by Saturn's enormous gravitational pull as it twists and stretches the 313-mile-wide (504 kilometers) moon as it orbits the gas giant. The Cassini spacecraft detected hydrogen emanating from the planet while passing through that body's plume on several fly-by maneuvers.

Cassini also sampled the plume's composition during flybys earlier in the mission.

Due to the finding, NASA directed Casini to plunge through this vapor which collected thousands of particles using instruments such as the Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS).

Cassini only had instruments created to investigate the outer atmosphere of another of Saturn's moons, Titan.

Scientists say one of Saturn's outer rings was actually formed from hydrogen rich water and ice being released from Enceladus.

"We detected hydrogen in the plume of Enceladus", Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said at a webcast news briefing. We have this buildup of food that's not being used. Hydrogen gas, originating from hydrothermal activity on the seafloor, was found entering into the subsurface ocean. The map is based on observations by the Galileo spacecraft.

NASA's space Hubble telescope has observed "probable" plumes erupting from Jupiter's moon Europa.

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