It might look like a frozen wasteland, but beneath the inhospitable surface of Saturn’s satellite Enceladus, life could be thriving in warm underground seas.
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has picked up the first evidence that chemical reactions are happening deep below the ice which could be creating an environment capable of supporting microbes a.k.a. life.
Liquid ocean exists miles below the surface on Enceladus, so to find out what is happening in the underground seas, scientists must rely on the plumes of spray which shoot up into space, through the cracks in the ice where they discovered hydrogen and carbon dioxide. In a report of their findings published in the journal Science, scientists said that the ‘only plausible’ source for the hydrogen was chemical reactions between warm water and rocks on the ocean floor. Crucially, if hydrogen is present, it can mix with carbon dioxide to form methane, which is consumed by microbes in the deep, dark seas of our own planet. However, the Cassini team has yet to find life on Enceladus.
“We haven’t discovered evidence of organism on Enceladus, but I’m encouraged by the geochemical data that could create this possibility,” said Chris Glein, Cassini INMS team associate at SwRI.
Experts said the discovery was ‘the last piece’ in the puzzle which proved that life was possible on Enceladus, a finding all the more remarkable because the small moon is 887 million miles away from the Sun!
Europa, one of the satellites of Jupiter, also shows a similar result, however, the Europa findings came from Hubble images of a plume found in 2014.
Thomas Zurburchen serves as associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters in Washington. He said this research fulfills NASA exploration’s three key objectives:
“First, it helps us understand and improve life on earth. It also provides fundamental research to understand new processes. Thirdly, it helps answer the fundamental question that has filled the thinking of so many in the past — ‘is there life elsewhere?’”