Extra-terrestrial life may be closer to us than originally thought, beneath the ice-crusted moon of Enceladus, that is, Saturn’s moon.
That is a seven years’ travel, with the 1990s technology.
Enceladus is a relatively tiny 500km-world has been recently explored by Cassini, a NASA spacecraft that has spent 12 years around the ringed exploring the moons around the ringed planet. The spacecraft was launched in 1997 and arrived at Saturn in 2007. Since, it has been exploring Saturn and its world, including Enceladus.
The findings announced on Thursday are a scientific milestone.
Beneath the ice surface of the Enceladus, there is a deep ocean, whose water Cassini has now sampled. The chemical analysis suggests the seafloor of the ocean has hot fluid vents that keep the ocean liquid, warm, and hospitable to life. That is not a certainty that there is life, but what is now certain is that the ocean is habitable and has all the elements of life.
The chemical elements found on Enceladus, when combined on earth, suggest life is around. When water, certain organic molecules, and a source of energy combine, life can be generated. Water is established and organic molecules too. What the Cassini mission did was also to establish that there is a source of energy.
Energy comes from a chemical process called serpentinization, that is, the interaction between rocks rich in iron and magnesium that releases hydrogen. That byproduct can sustain life. Hydrogen has been found. Moreover, there is carbon dioxide in the sample, which suggests a process known as methanogenesis is at play, which is linked to microbic life.
There are now three planets that have hosted, are hosting, or could in the future host life: Mars, Europa, and Enceladus.