NASA says saturnal moon may harbor life

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"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".

Chemical analysis of the plume suggested conditions favourable for methanogenesis - the generation of methane by microbes that use hydrogen and carbon dioxide to obtain energy.

Although researchers have not actually found life on the planet, the hydrogen discovery proves there is a "food source" to support it.

Associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Tomas Zurbuchen, said: "These results demonstrate the interconnected nature of NASA's science missions that are getting us closer to answering whether we are indeed alone or not".

The space agency says Saturn's icy moon called Enceladus has nearly all the ingredients to support life.

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Cassini has no instruments that can detect life, so it will be up to future robotic visitors to seek out possible life on Enceladus, the scientists said.

Cassini has not yet shown phosphorus and sulfur are present in the ocean of Enceladus, but according to NASA, scientists suspect them to be, since its rocky core is thought to be chemically similar to meteorites that contain the two elements. Finding this hydrothermal process on Enceladus shows the potential for the existence of life within its ocean.

SwRI's Dr Christopher Glein, who is a co-author in the recent study, added that the molecular hydrogen found in Enceladus is enough to support microbes similar to the ones found in the hydrothermal vents on Earth.

Scientists also considered other sources of hydrogen from the moon itself, such as a preexisting reservoir in the ice shell or global ocean.

The moon is now thought to be one of the best potential locations of alien habitats within our solar system, the United States led team have said.

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We've got the Cassini spacecraft to thank for the new findings, as the probe has been busy taking measurements around Saturn and Enceladus since 2004.

Cassini mission researchers looked into the results from images taken, which found plumes.

Enceladus has been the talk of the scientific community for quite some time because it, along with Jupiter's moon Europa, is considered one of the most likely candidates in our solar system for finding life.

NASA's upcoming Europa Clipper mission planned for launch in the 2020s will continue the search for life beyond Earth, and will study Enceladus with advanced equipment.

Jim Green, director, Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters, said NASA will continue to examine these oceans.

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