Nasa announced Thursday that one tiny moon of Saturn, Enceladus, has been found to have many of the building blocks of life, including water and chemical components necessary for life. Nasa emphasized that they have not found evidence of life there, but rather established that the moon holds the necessary elements for life to develop.
Project scientist Linda Spilker said the findings confirmed vents on the seafloor of the moon. “We now know that Enceladus has almost all of the ingredients that you need to support life as we know it on Earth,” she said.
Another scientist working on the project, Chris Glein, said the moon’s ocean contained the chemical elements needed to sustain microbial life. “We have made the first calorie count on an alien ocean,” Glein said.
Underneath the moon’s frozen surface, scientists have found a saltwater ocean, with active energy sources – a reaction between heated water and rocks produces hydrogen, in process that could be similar to undersea vents on earth.
Nasa associate administrator Thomas Zurbuchen explained “We don’t know whether there’s life out there yet but right now we’re making a lot of progress.”
Hydrogen was first detected there in 2015, by the unmanned spacecraft Cassini. It detected trace amounts of methane, as well as water, ice, salts, and carbon compounds, according to the researchers. The craft also detected silicates and hydrogen, indicative of energy sources beneath the moon’s surface. Those findings were revealed for the first time at a Nasa briefing Thursday, as well as in the journal Science.
“This finding does not mean that life exists there, but it makes life more plausible and potentially quite abundant if a fraction of the hydrogen is used to drive biology,” according to Jeffrey Kargel, a University of Arizona professor.
University College professor Andrew Coates explained: “This distant moon now joins Mars and Europa as the best potential locations for life beyond Earth in our solar system.”
Though Nasa scientists have found liquid water on Mars as well, solar winds have dried out and irradiated the planet. Jupiter’s moon Europa as an ocean below its icy surface, and Nasa plans to send a probe there in the 2020s, with instruments to detect undersea vents. These vents are considered important, since undersea vents of Earth yield heated chemicals that provide for whole ocean floor ecosystems, allowing microbial life to thrive. The vents have long been a focus for biologists studying the origins of life on earth about 4 billion years ago.
“If we knew that life had started independently in two places in our solar system, then we could be pretty confident that life also got started on some of the tens of billions of planets and moons around other stars in our galaxy,” according to planetary geosciences professor David Rothery of the Open University.