NASA: Ocean world near Saturn could support life
Taline McPhedran and Graham Slaughter, CTVNews.ca
Published Thursday, April 13, 2017 11:54AM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, April 13, 2017 9:31PM EDT
A moon orbiting Saturn could harbour favourable conditions to support life, according to new information released by NASA.
On Thursday, NASA announced Saturn’s moon Enceladus was found to have giant plumes containing hydrogen molecules that could be a potential source for microbial life.
The new findings from Nasa’s Cassini spacecraft, which has been orbiting Saturn since 2002, indicate that ammonia, carbon dioxide, methane and organics were also found coming from the plumes, almost all the ingredients needed to support life on earth.
According to Chris Glein, a Cassini spacecraft team associate, NASA believes the hydrothermal fluids are circulating below the ocean floor and possibly creating a chemical reaction between the water and rocky core of the moon, inducing hydrogen.
According to Mary Voytek, director of the Space Administration Astrobiology Program, the next steps would be to see if Enceladus has had enough time to evolve life in the oceans as the Cassini spacecraft was only able to look for habitability but not detect life.
“It would be wonderful but we haven’t discovered organisms in the ocean on Enceladus,” said Voytek during the announcement.
NASA also announced that their Hubble Space Telescope had taken images of a possible plume coming from Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons.
Europa is thought to have a global salty ocean underneath its thick crust of ice. Previous thermal images from the Galileo Europa Mission showed a hot spot that was originally identified as a thermal anomaly.
According to William Sparks of the Space Telescope Science Institute, the Hubble Space Telescope captured pictures of a plume emanating from the same hot spot both in 2014 and in 2016 that were almost identical in appearance.
“We looked 12 times and saw it twice,” Sparks said during the announcement. “The statistics tell us that they’re real.”
Astronomer: Life ‘might be more common’ than we thought
NASA stressed the findings, announced in the journal Science, do not mean that there is life on either moon, but that there may be favourable conditions to harbour life.
Still, the finding marks a major step in the right direction for scientists hunting for extra-terrestrial life, says one Canadian astronomer.
“For the longest time we assumed that life would require the perfect environment and we look on Earth and we see life thrive in really rich environment,” Nathalie Ouellette, an astronomer with Queen’s University, told CTV News Channel on Thursday.
"But when we started finding life in really acidic lakes or on hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean -- or maybe even on these icy moons now -- we’re figuring out that maybe life is a lot more robust than we had initially thought, and it might be more common.”
Lessons from Antarctica
Another unlikely place where scientists recently found life was in a pitch-black, freezing cold pocket of water deep beneath Antarctic ice.
There, in early 2015, U.S. researchers dropped a remote-controlled submarine into the ice and were shocked to discover tiny, translucent fish and orange shrimp-like amphipods swimming past their camera.
Such findings excited astronomers searching for life because the conditions of the Antarctic water could be similar to those on the two watery moons, but there’s no way to know just how similar until NASA gets a closer look.
Microbial lifeforms existed on Earth for billions of years before they developed into more complex cells. Reed Scherer, a micropaleontology professor at Northern Illinois University who was part of the Antarctica research, told CTVNews.ca that if there is life on Enceladus or Europa, scientists will be keen to learn if they’ve evolved beyond microscopic lifeforms.
“If there is (life), is it similar to the early microbial communities that exist on this planet … or has it been able to evolve or change or organize itself into more complex communities? So, fascinating questions,” Scherer said.
Scherer cautioned that a direct link should not be drawn between his research and NASA’s findings on Thursday. Instead, the 20th-century discovery of bacteria living on Earth’s sea floors -- organisms that don’t rely on sunlight for life -- is a more likely candidate for comparison.
“They are most analogous for what could potentially be living in these vent environments that may exist on Enceladus or Europa,” he said.
“What we found in Antarctica just confirms what was already known, which was that life on this planet is ubiquitous. Anywhere where you have the basic elements of water and a source of energy and a source of nutrition, there will be things living there.”
The next big mission for NASA is the Europa Clipper that will send a spacecraft to orbit Jupiter and make close flybys of Europa. The spacecraft will have ice penetrating radar and thermal imaging to detect what is going on beneath the surface.