Two Moons in Our Solar System May Possess Building Blocks for Life, Says NASA

Europa and Enceladus.  (Image credit: NASA)

Europa and Enceladus.  (Image credit: NASA)

In a press release earlier today, NASA declared that Jupiter's moon Europa, and Saturn's moon Enceladus, may contain the basic elements considered necessary for life as we know it to exist.

"Europa and Enceladus are thought to have an ocean of liquid water beneath their surface in contact with mineral-rich rock, and may have the three ingredients needed for life as we know it: liquid water, essential chemical elements for biological processes, and sources of energy that could be used by living things."

"NASA's Cassini mission has revealed Enceladus as an active world of icy geysers," said the press release.  "Recent research suggests it may have hydrothermal activity on its ocean floor, an environment potentially suitable for living organisms."

NASA scientists used the Cassini spacecraft's mass spectrometer to detect an abundance of hydrogen molecules in water plumes rising from fractures in Enceladus' ice-covered surface.  This hydrogen is believed to come from a hydrothermal reaction between the moon's ocean and its rocky core that draws hydrogen out of the minerals present.  They believe that this process could also point to the formation of methane, which is considered another crucial chemical for life.

J. Hunter Waite (Image credit: Southwest Research Institute)

J. Hunter Waite (Image credit: Southwest Research Institute)

"Now, Enceladus is high on the list in the solar system for showing habitable conditions," said J. Hunter Waite, leader of the Cassini Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer team at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio and lead author of the Enceladus study.

"The presence of hydrogen established another reference point saying there is hydrothermal activity inside this body, and that's interesting because we know in our own oceans, those are very important places that are teeming with life, and they are probably one of the earliest places where life happened on Earth."

In addition, the Hubble Space Telescope showed a water plume erupting from the warmest part of the surface of Europa for the second time.  The frequency of this observation leads scientists to believe this might be a feature of the moon's surface.

Britney Schmidt  (Image credit: NASA)

Britney Schmidt  (Image credit: NASA)

"This is significant, because the rest of the planet isn't easy to predict or understand, and it's happening for the second time in the warmest spot," said Britney Schmidt, second author on the Europa study.

NASA scientists believe that "we are closer than ever to finding out if other water-rich worlds like ours exist," and plan on exploring the habitability of both moons.

"Understanding the diversity of our solar system is pretty important and the possibility of applying what we know here to exoplanets, it just opens up the range of possibilities for life beyond our previous expectations," said Waite.

"These ocean worlds all over the outer solar system that are a little bit alien," Schmidt said, "they're the most compelling things that we have in the solar system."

Tobias WaylandComment