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Today Earthlings came one very giant step closer to finding life elsewhere in our solar system. In the final months of its 20-year mission, the spacecraft Cassini delivered its most noteworthy revelation yet: the ocean of Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, is releasing hydrogen, an energy source for some microorganisms. In other words, that ocean is inhabitable. “Enceladus,” says Cornell University astrophysicist Jonathan Lunine, “is the place to go to look for life.”
The ocean—made of liquid water and resembling a hybrid of the Atlantic Ocean, a desert mineral lake and the fluid found near hydrothermal vents—covers the entire surface of this moon. A thick shell of ice surrounds the entire body of water, though, leaving it dark and frigid. But something happening inside that ocean is strong enough to break through those miles of ice. At the moon’s southern pole, a geyser-like plume spews water vapor, ice, salt and a mix of gases hundreds of miles into space at a force of 800 miles per hour.
Among the contents of the plume, one gas stands out: hydrogen. Although this element is abundant in the universe, it’s usually bound to others, like oxygen. Rarely is hydrogen found alone. But the mere presence of pure hydrogen gas is not why scientists think Enceladus is habitable; it’s the large amount of it. When Cassini flew past the plume in 2015, it detected pure hydrogen in quantities that could not be easily explained.
Hydrogen is the lightest element, readily escaping the gravitational pull of whatever planet or moon it came from.
“Molecular hydrogen doesn’t hang around for a long time,” says Lunine. Because this nearly weightless gas floats away so easily, maintaining large amounts requires continual production. The hydrogen on Enceladus is not a relic of an old geological process. Something on that moon is making pure hydrogen gas now. “That’s the exciting part,” says Lunine.
The team of researchers behind the Cassini mission examined all the possible explanations for what could be generating such large quantities of hydrogen gas. Only one withstood the calculations: hydrothermal vents. Lunine and his co-authors on theScience study reporting the analysis believe that ocean water is reacting with rocks in hydrothermal vents on the seafloor to actively produce hydrogen.
Finding newly manufactured hydrogen on Enceladus is significant because the element can support life. The Earth has ample proof of that. In places where sunlight and oxygen are unavailable, microbial life forms live off hydrogen. These organisms, which first evolved billions of years ago, are among the most ancient forms of life on Earth, and are known as methanogenic archaea, or more simply methanogens, because they produce methane gas (a combination of hydrogen and carbon). Not all methane-producing microbes depend on hydrogen, but some do. In particular, methanogens buried deep inside of rocks eat hydrogen. So do those living in hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean.
Scientists searching for life elsewhere in the universe have latched onto methane-producing organisms as the likeliest fellow residents of our solar system. Planets and moons farther from the sun than Earth lack strong sunlight. So microorganisms like methanogenic archaea, which thrive in its absence, are the most plausible interplanetary life form.
“They are my favorite organism,” says NASA senior scientist Chris McKay, “and they are the darling of astrobiology.”
Enceladus has been shocking space explorers since Cassini arrived at Saturn in 1997. “It’s surprised us so many times that we should no longer be surprised,” says Chris Glein, who researches space science and engineering at the Southwest Research Institute and is a co-author on the new study. First came the discovery of what was initially thought to be a small body of water beneath the surface at one of its poles. Despite being covered by ice, that water turned out to be in a liquid state. And the ocean was not confined to the polar region; it spans the entirety of the moon.
The presence of water stirred questions about the possibility of life on Enceladus. The next piece of evidence that goosed that speculation came in 2005, when Cassini made its closest approach yet to the moon. As the spacecraft flew through the plume, an instrument known as an ion and neutral mass spectrometer—“Think of it as a gas sniffer,” says Glein—registered hydrogen among the gases it detected. But the source of that gas was a mystery. The ocean was a candidate, but not the only one. The force of the collision between spacecraft and plume, which releases gas at a force of 800 miles per hour, could also have generated the hydrogen, says Glein.
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