Two veteran NASA missions have revealed that Saturn’s sixth-largest moon Enceladus and Jupiter’s fourth-largest moon Europa may have the ingredients needed for a habitable environment. The missions provide new details about the two icy, ocean-bearing moons of the two planets. The findings were published in a journal called Science on 13 April 2017 by researchers with NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn and Hubble Space Telescope.
The research paper indicates that hydrogen gas, which could provide a chemical energy source that supports life, is pouring into the subsurface ocean of Saturn’s moon from hydrothermal activity on the seafloor. The presence of so much hydrogen in the moon’s ocean indicated that microbes if there are any, could use it to obtain energy by combining the hydrogen with carbon dioxide dissolved in the water. The resulting chemical reaction – methanogenesis that produces methane as a byproduct is the root of life on Earth and so, it could even be critical in determining the origin of life on our planet.
The Hubble Space researchers have also reported to have found evidence of plumes erupting from Jupiter’s moon. Going by this, the research reveals that Saturn’s sun Enceladus almost has all of these necessary ingredients. Though the researchers have not yet found evidence of the existence of Phosphorus and sulfur on the ocean moon, they suspect the ingredients to be present, as the rocky core of the body is thought to be chemically similar to that of the meteorites that contain the two elements.
According to the newly published findings of the Hubble Space Telescope in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, the probable plume of material was seen erupting from the moon’s surface at the same location where it was seen in 2014. The images reinforce the belief that the Europa plumes could be a real phenomenon. The findings correspond to the location of an unusually warm region, containing features that look to be like cracks in the moon’s icy crust, which were seen by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990s.
Researchers speculate that this could be evidence of water erupting from the moon’s interior, just like in the case of Saturn’s moon have habitable environment. The Hubble space team is continuing to use Hubble to monitor Europa to get more evidence of the plume, hoping to determine the frequency in its appearance.
According to Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at Headquarters in Washington, this is the closest they have come to identifying a place with some of the ingredients needed for a habitable environment. Overall, the study of both the planets’ moons is setting the foundation for NASA’s future exploration of the ocean worlds, especially for NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, which is scheduled to launch in the 2020s.