Image source: nasa.gov

Saturn’s Enceladus contains a chemical energy source that supports life, NASA reveals. Its water vapour contains hydrogen and other molecules.

The Cassini mission findings indicated the presence of ample hydrogen in the moon’s ocean. This means that microbes, if any exist there, could use hydrogen to obtain energy. The energy can be generated by combining hydrogen with carbon dioxide dissolved in water, NASA explains.

The researchers with NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn and Hubble Space Telescope published their findings in the journal Science.

According to NASA, this chemical reaction is known as “methanogenesis.” It will result in the production of methane as a by-product. Methane ‘is at the root of the tree of life on Earth.’ “It could even have been vital to the origin of life on our planet,” NASA said.

After all, life requires three primary ingredients. These are liquid water; a source of energy for metabolism; and a combination of chemical ingredients. These include carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur.

The Cassini finding indicates that Enceladus has nearly all the ingredients for habitability. The mission has yet to find the presence of phosphorus and sulfur in the moon’s ocean. However, scientists theorized the moon has these chemicals.

Presence Of Hydrogen In Enceladus A Milestone

The scientists further noted that Enceladus’s rocky core appears to be chemically similar to meteorites that contain the two elements.

Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker considers the discovery as an ‘important milestone’ in the search for other habitable areas beyond earth.

Enceladus plumes

Image source: nasa.gov

The Cassini spacecraft spotted the presence of hydrogen during its deepest dive through the plume of gas and icy material coming from Enceladus. The spacecraft also took samples of the plume’s composition in earlier flybys.

Scientists then determined that almost 98 percent of the gas in the plume is water and about one percent hydrogen. They also found a mixture of other molecules including carbon dioxide, methane and ammonia.

Cassini’s Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS) instrument measured the plume’s chemical composition. The instrument takes in gases to determine their composition.

This graphic illustrates how Cassini scientists think water interacts with rock at the bottom of the ocean of Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus, producing hydrogen gas.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Although we can’t detect life, we’ve found that there’s a food source there for it. It would be like a candy store for microbes,” said Hunter Waite, lead author of the Cassini study.

Previous studies on Enceladus had showed hydrothermal activity in its ocean. Also, the results indicated that hot water might be interacting with rock in the sea.

The new discovery supports the earlier findings. It also indicated that the rock might have a chemical reaction thus producing hydrogen.