Video Caption: NASA’s Cassini spacecraft discovered hydrogen in the plume of gas and icy particles spraying from Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The discovery means the small, icy moon — which has a global ocean under its surface — has a source of chemical energy that could be useful for microbes, if any exist there. The finding also provides further evidence that warm, mineral-laden water is pouring into the ocean from vents in the seafloor. On Earth, such hydrothermal vents support thriving communities of life in complete isolation from sunlight. Enceladus now appears likely to have all three of the ingredients scientists think life needs: liquid water, a source of energy (like sunlight or chemical energy), and the right chemical ingredients (like carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen).
Cassini is not able to detect life, and has found no evidence that Enceladus is inhabited. But if life is there, that means life is probably common throughout the cosmos; if life has not evolved there, it would suggest life is probably more complicated or unlikely than we have thought. Either way the implications are profound. Future missions to this icy moon may shed light on its habitability.
White smoker footage courtesy of: NOAA-OER / C.German (WHOI)