Today at 2pm NASA announced the discovery that one of Saturn’s moons, Enceladus, is likely habitable and has almost all of the ingredients for life to form.
It’s an unexplored water world about the same size as our own moon covered by a layer of ice. The moon can be seen wobbling through its orbit around Saturn due to water sloshing around. NASA recently sent the cassini spacecraft over it’s plumes of water that are sprayed into space through vents at its south pole. It discovered evidence that hydrothermal activity on the floor of its ocean is most likely creating methane from carbon dioxide.
A hydrothermal Vent is like an underwater geyser that forms along the ridges or openings in the sea floor. Cold sea water is mixed with hot magma that creates a chemical reaction which produces minerals and chemicals. They discovered this after the cassini spacecraft made it’s closest approach (30 miles) and detected significantly high amounts of hydrogen. We know something must be creating this hydrogen. We don’t know for sure which process is creating it, but it’s most likely hydrothermal activity.
Earth has many hydrothermal vents where hot water from deep inside earth reaches the ocean. If you were to take Earth’s microbes to enceladus, they’d likely survive. Many scientists believe that life on earth first originated inside these hydrothermal vents. Their theory is backed up by fossil evidence. It’s also possible that there is a form of life in Enceladus’ ocean that is eating up hydrogen and creating methane and carbon dioxide, like we see on earth. The hydrothermal vents on earth typically have microorganisms that get their energy from the mineralogical chemistry around the vents, they don’t need the sun.
So did NASA find evidence of life on Enceladus? Not exactly, but we did find evidence that there might be places on enceladus that are similar to places on Earth where extreme forms of life live, called extremophiles.
Even if there is no life on Enceladus this is still exciting news, many other moons have oceans, like Jupiter’s moon, Europa, which has a subsurface ocean that also vents plumes of liquid into space. Mimas, Ganymede, and Callisto could also have an ocean, and that’s just the moons of Saturn and Jupiter. We think Pluto and Ceres might have an ocean too.
The spacecrafts scientists want to go back to enceladus and send a craft specifically designed to search for life in the big cracks on the moons surface, we need to drill into the ice and test it.
And that’s just within our solar system, out of the 2 trillion galaxies in our universe, I would say it’s safe to say we’re not alone.
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