Nasa has just announced that there could be alien life currently living within our solar system, after discovering that all of the elements needed to support life have been found on a moon that orbits planet Saturn. The sixth-largest moon of Saturn, named Enceladus, was found to contain chemicals that have previously indicated life when they were found on Earth, which studies suggest could mean that there could be living things under the icy shell of the moon.
Scientists have believed that life could exist on Enceladus in the past, due to its subsurface ocean that covers the entire body of the planet. However, the new research has allowed for a deeper look into the moon, showing that its chemical energy source is capable of supporting a form of life. These new findings came from the Cassini spacecraft, after it flew through a huge plume of water that was being shot out of the surface of Enceladus. This allowed the spacecraft to obtain readings of the existing water and send them back to the scientists on Earth, who proceeded to study them.
Conclusions were then drawn stating that there is evidence of molecular hydrogen within those jets of vapour, which could only have come from “hydrothermal reactions between hot rocks and water underneath the moon’s icy crust”, according to the researchers. This is the same process that occurs on Earth when providing energy for the specific ecosystems that are found around hydrothermal vents. The hydrogen is a source of good food and fuel for some ancient forms of life. The study has suggested that any life forms on Enceladus may eat the hydrogen, before releasing methane, which has been found coming from the moon in the past.
Scientists currently believe that there are three key ingredients that are needed for life to exist on a planet, which are water, organic molecules and a source of energy. Both water and organic molecules have previously been detected on Enceladus, whilst the latest discovery has revealed all three elements on the moon, together with an addition fuel source that is needed to keep life alive. Lewis Dartnell, an astrobiology researcher at the University of Westminster, said, “We now know there’s not only a warm, wet environment – we now realise there’s food for life. There’s fuel for an ecosystem on Enceladus.” Whilst exact details have not yet been discovered about the workings of that ecosystem, the new findings suggest that it is more possible than previously believed.
Caitriona Jackman from the University of Southampton said, “That’s what’s very significant here: this molecular hydrogen is a direct observation of an energetic process that is potentially capable of fuelling life.” Another leading scientist also called the new research “an important advance in assessing the habitability of Enceladus”, whilst also mentioning that the new research helps “constrain the possibility of life elsewhere in our solar system”, which geochemist Jeffrey Seewald wrote in an assessment of the work.
Researchers are now thinking about sending a mission specifically to Enceladus to hunt for signs of life. Professor Jackman, who worked on the Cassini mission, called the findings a “tantalising result” and asked that further work should be carried out in order to establish more about the icy moon. Professor Dartnell said that there are “some really profound discoveries awaiting us”.
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