Thursday, April 13, 2017

Mixed News From Enceladus

Saturn's small moon Enceladus is considered one of the most promising places in the solar system for extraterrestrial life. Though it's far from the Sun, tidal forces have apparently heated its interior enough to produce an ice covered but liquid ocean, and from time to time it erupts in geysers that spout high above it south pole.

The Cassini mission to Saturn has sampled that geyser and found something interesting: hydrogen, which is interesting since hydrogen could be a fuel for life as it is in deep ocean vents on Earth. There is a good news- bad news aspect to this story.

Kenneth Chang, writing in the NYT, has the story:

Could icy moons like Saturn’s Enceladus in the outer solar system be home to microbes or other forms of alien life?

Intriguing new findings from data collected by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft suggest the possibility.

Plumes of gas erupting out of Enceladus — a small moon with an ocean of liquid water beneath its icy crust — contain hydrogen. Scientists infer a lot from that: that there are hydrothermal chemical reactions similar to those that occur at hot fissures at the ocean bottoms on Earth.

On Earth at least, hydrothermal vents thrive with microbial life, offering up the potential that icy moons far from Earth — called “ocean worlds” by NASA — could be habitable.Could icy moons like Saturn’s Enceladus in the outer solar system be home to microbes or other forms of alien life?

Of course we don't see much hydrogen on Earth, since the bacteria scarf it up, so maybe there aren't any to do that job on Enceladus.