NASA announced on Thursday that a small moon of Saturn has the majority of the conditions required to support life. The announcement coincides with the prior discovery of an underground ocean, making the moon, named Enceladus, a prime potential host for organisms based on the current human understanding of what is required for a planet to support life.
As reported by the New York Times, the findings are based on data collected by the NASA Cassini spacecraft. Gas plumes erupting on Enceladus were determined to contain hydrogen, suggesting hydrothermal chemical reactions are occurring that could facilitate the development of microbial life, similar to the conditions that occur on Earth through hot fissures on the ocean floor.
Enceladus has a saltwater ocean beneath an icy crust. The presence of hydrogen indicates an active energy source is present.
While the potential for life may exist, scientists state that the discovery is no evidence that life currently exists on Enceladus, or that it had previously. Cassini also found measurable amounts of carbon dioxide and methane, along with the hydrogen, but they are not in complete equilibrium. The presence of the imbalance suggests an energy source could be created that organisms could use for food.
As reported by the Guardian, Linda Spilker, a project scientist, said, “We now know that Enceladus has almost all of the ingredients that you need to support life as we know it on Earth.”
Another scientist involved with the project, Chris Glein, stated, “We have made the first calorie count on an alien ocean,” referencing the possibility of a food source that could support microbial life.
After exploring Saturn for approximately 13 years, the Cassini spacecraft is currently in the final months of its journey. Beginning April 22, the spacecraft will take its place between the planet and its rings, completing 22 orbits before its scheduled crash into the atmosphere of Saturn in September.
NASA is also interested in Europa, a moon of Jupiter, for its potential to sustain life. Europa, like Enceladus, has an underground ocean beneath its icy crust. Additionally, researchers have found evidence of plumes on Europa along with a potential hotspot. NASA is hoping to send a probe to the moon in 2020 to gather more information.