The moon has captured the imagination of astronomers ever since NASA's Cassini spacecraft delivered images showing massive plumes of vapour erupting from cracks on its icy surface. However, in a major breakthrough, two of NASA's veteran missions have found compelling evidence of life on one of Saturn's moon Enceladus.
This finding led to the conclusion that microbes on the moon can get energy through a process known as methanogenesis - which is carried out by combining hydrogen with carbon dioxide present in water.
"The discovery of native molecular hydrogen [H2] completes the set of what I would call the "basic" requirements for life as we know it: liquid water, organic molecules, minerals, and an accessible source of "free" energy", Lunine explained to Gizmodo. This gas could possibly act as a source of chemical energy for life forms.
This is the closest scientists have come to identifying a place having the ingredients for life, said Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator of the NASA Science Mission Directorate.
NASA's Cassini spacecraft detected the presence of molecular hydrogen in water plumes erupting from Saturn's icy moon Enceladus, the USA space agency announced Thursday, suggesting that the distant world has nearly all the conditions necessary for life. Researchers are still trying to confirm the presence of phosphorus and sulfur on Enceladus, but they are confident it exists.
From information obtained by the spacecraft, there is evidence of chemical reactions under the icy surface of the moon.
How Did The Cassini Spacecraft Detect Hydrogen?
The scientific team analysed water samples taken by Nasa's Cassini space probe on a mission in 2015. Simple Earth organisms eat methane and excrete carbon dioxide, reports Sputnik. They found that there is a plume coming from the moon's surface in an area that had shown plumes in the past, NASA specialists speculated that this may mean the same thing is happening on Europa as is happening on Enceladus.
Nasa announced the discovery at a press conference at the agency's headquarters in Washington DC on Thursday.
On Earth, where we find water, we find life, so that's where we like to look for life in space, too.
"With this finding, Cassini has shown that Enceladus - a small, icy moon a billion miles farther from the sun than Earth - has almost all of these ingredients for habitability", NASA said in a statement announcing the findings.
"This finding has implications for determining the habitability of Enceladus' subsurface ocean", wrote the study's authors.
The next step will be to send a life-finding mission to Enceladus.