Is There Life on Enceladus? Saturn’s icy moon, hosts vital life source, key molecule, NASA reveals

The search for extraterrestrial life has inspired space agencies to advance their search within and outside our planetary system. While astronomers have been struggling to find concrete evidence of life in the interstellar world, they have decided to leave no stone unturned in our solar system. Enceladus is a celestial body that is classified as one of the top celestial bodies to host life. So, could there be life on Enceladus?

In a recent study, NASA discovered that Saturn’s icy moon, Enceladus could be hosting fundamental life-supporting molecules. The agency reveals that Enceladus possesses a plume of ice grains and water vapor which harbors excessive organic compounds essential for life. Researchers closely studied data obtained from NASA’s Cassini probe to make the recent discovery.

The data reveals detailed evidence of life existing on Enceladus. The team that participated in this study reported strong evidence of hydrogen cyanide on the moon. This element is an important molecule in the formation of amino acids.

“The discovery of hydrogen cyanide was particularly exciting because it’s the starting point for most theories on the origin of life,” said lead author Jonah Peter, a doctoral student at Harvard University, in an official release.

How Scientists recently discovered Evidence of Life on Enceladus

Scientists closely studied Cassini’s data about Enceladus and discovered that the icy moon has a subsurface ocean hiding beneath its frozen surface. This subsurface ocean is rich in chemical energy. The recent study increased scientists’ interest in exploring the moon as it suggests the possibility of life on Enceladus. 

The study suggests that more chemical energy could exist on the moon and the more chemical energy that exists on Enceladus, the greater its chances to host life.

“Our work provides further evidence that Enceladus is host to some of the most important molecules for both creating the building blocks of life and for sustaining that life through metabolic reactions,” said Peter, who conducted most of this research while working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“Not only does Enceladus seem to meet the basic requirements for habitability, we now have an idea about how complex biomolecules could form there, and what sort of chemical pathways might be involved.”

A study of plumes in 2017 revealed that the metabolic process is known as methanogenesis. This creates methane generation that could exist on Enceladus. Scientists also revealed that this mechanism is common on Earth. Hence, it may have contributed to the origin and thriving of life on Earth.

How the Researchers concluded on the study

Water coming from the subsurface ocean of Saturn’s moon Enceladus sprays from massive fissures out into space. NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which captured this image in 2010. Scientists are continuing to make new findings from the data. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

The team conducted this study by evaluating data obtained from Cassini’s ion and neutral mass spectrometer. This particular instrument was responsible for collecting information on gas, ions, and ice grains of celestial bodies. The latest study reveals indications of potent energy sources instead of just methanogenesis.

In addition, astronomers suggested a wide range of oxidized organic molecules which suggests that multiple chemical pathways might have sustained life on the Enceladus subsurface ocean. Sustaining life in subterranean oceans is important because oxidation is necessary to release chemical energy.

“If methanogenesis is like a small watch battery, in terms of energy, then our results suggest the ocean of Enceladus might offer something more akin to a car battery, capable of providing a large amount of energy to any life that might be present,” said JPL’s Kevin Hand, co-author of the study.

The recent discovery provides new insights into the possibility of life on the icy moon, habitability, and the development of complex biomolecules. Hence, the research may help scientists advance their search for extraterrestrial lifeforms through the process of sending robotic probes to the icy world.

The team published their findings in the journal Nature Astronomy.

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