Life in Solar System Nearly Possible on Two Moons

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"It really represents a capstone finding for the mission", Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker said.

"But now, we know that three of the four conditions are there on Enceladus - and this distant moon now joins Mars and Europa as the best potential locations for life beyond Earth in our solar system".

'This is the closest we've come, so far, to identifying a place with some of the ingredients needed for a habitable environment, ' said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at Headquarters in Washington. "So we're going to start with bacteria and if we get lucky, maybe there's something that's larger", NASA astrobiology senior scientist Mary Voytek said at a news conference.

NASA has reported that the findings from the Cassini mission have indicated that hydrogen gas is flowing into Enceladus' subsurface ocean from hydrothermal activity on the seafloor. In addition now, there is proof that a source of energy, namely hydrogen, exists.

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This process, where microbes break down the hydrogen and release methane as a byproduct, is known as methanogenesis.

'If we can prove this place where life could exist really does have it, that would be a huge discovery. That's not just limited to planets, though, and a few moons in our own solar system seem to be hiding sub-surface oceans that could harbor alien life.

Although Cassini hasn't yet shown presence of phosphorus and sulfur in the ocean, scientists suspect them to be, since the rocky core of Enceladus is thought to be chemically similar to meteorites that contain the two elements. Only phosphorus and sulfur are missing.

How Did The Cassini Spacecraft Detect Hydrogen?

By flying through a plume spraying out of its icy shell, Cassini was able to detect molecular hydrogen. But its detectors were turned towards Jupiter's icy moon Enceladus post discovering the emission of the towering plume of icy spray in 2015.

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

Analysis has shown the water plumes coming off the moon mainly consist of tiny particles of water ice, with traces of methane, ammonia, carbon dioxide, salts, and simple organic molecules.

Enceladus, a frozen moon nearly 10 times as far from the sun as Earth, at 900 million miles, was one of the least likely candidates. That's fine, really, as Cassini was never meant to study the geysers and thus, doesn't have the necessary instruments to tell us much more.

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