Ocean world near Saturn top contender for life beyond Earth

But when Cassini completed its first close flyby of the Saturn satellite in 2005, the mission's researchers were shocked to discover that the south pole of the moon was laced with warm fractures and covered with clouds of water vapour. This suggests that the ocean we know lies beneath the moon's surface could indeed contain an ecosystem similar to the ones we find in deep-sea hydrothermal vents on Earth.

According to William Sparks of the Space Telescope Science Institute, the Hubble Space Telescope captured pictures of a plume emanating from the same hot spot both in 2014 and in 2016 that were nearly identical in appearance.

Cassini wasn't created to detect life as the team did not know the plumes existed until the spacecraft arrived at Saturn.

This illustration shows Cassini diving through the Enceladus plume in 2015.

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Previous discoveries include geysers which shoot hundreds of miles into space from Enceladus - some of the material falling back onto the surface as a coat of ice.

"It really represents a capstone finding for the mission", said Cassini's project scientist, Linda Spilker, noting that the spacecraft has been circling Saturn for more than a decade.

They succeeded - Cassini detected molecular hydrogen. When Cassini sampled the plume, it found it to be 98 percent water, with the remaining 2 per cent consisting of elements like liquid hydrogen, carbon dioxide and methane - and traces of organics.

Enceladus, which measures 313 miles across, is only the sixth largest of Saturn's moons, but when it comes to the search for life it's already the most exciting. Two chemicals essential to living organisms — sulfur and phosphorus — have not been confirmed, but all the same, “Enceladus is rising to the top of habitable places that exist in the solar system.”. Instead, the mission is facing its "grand finale", a series of 22 orbits in which it will pass spectacularly between Saturn and its innermost ring. In September, it will plunge into the planet and end its journey.

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NASA and others are quick to point out this latest discovery does not mean there's life on Enceladus, but that there may be conditions favorable for life.

Once scientists made this finding they used thermal imaging via the Hubble Telescope to study Europa. It admitted plume material directly into the instrument's detection chamber to avoid the possibility of hydrogen being generated by plume-water reacting with the metallic components of the instrument itself. The green oval also corresponds to a warm region on Europa's surface, as identified by the temperature map at right. He led the 2014 and 2016 plume studies. "We discovered that Europa's plume candidate is sitting right on the thermal anomaly", said William Sparks of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland.

Professor Jeffrey Kargel, from the University of Arizona, US, said: "As the authors model and describe, the hydrogen gas does indeed appear to be a tell-tale signature of hydrothermal activity occurring on the seafloor".

NASA is developing a mission to Europa known as Clipper that is still in the preliminary design phase but that would launch in the 2020s and reach Europa after a journey of "several years". Sending a probe to Europa was a high priority in the last two planetary science Decadal Surveys written by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

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Credit: Science Credit: NASA, ESA, and W. Sparks (STScI). "Future missions to explore oceans beyond Earth will answer many of these questions".


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