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Chemicals for Life Found on Enceladus

Did you hear that NASA just announced an important discovery in the quest to find life on other places in the Solar System? In this quick episode, Fraser details what NASA found on Enceladus and Europa, and what it means for the search for life.

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Team: Fraser Cain – @fcain / frasercain@gmail.com
Karla Thompson – @karlaii
Chad Weber – weber.chad@gmail.com

I know, I know, this is getting comically hilarious. Aliens, next episode.

Although maybe, aliens this episode?

Anyway, NASA made a huge announcement today, and I thought it was important enough to stop everything we were doing, call Chad and Karla back to Universe Today headquarters to help me cover it.

Here’s the announcement: NASA announced today that they’ve found an important chemical for life – hydrogen gas – blasting out of Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus. In addition to this, they confirmed that Jupiter’s Europa has icy geysers too.

We’ve known about Enceladus’ plumes for a while, so the discovery of hydrogen gas is pretty exciting. We’ve suspected Europa has jets, but more confirmation of their existence is great. We don’t know if there’s hydrogen gas in Europa’s plumes… yet, but there’s a spacecraft in the works to help us find out.

Let’s get into the details.

Earlier this week, NASA teased us that they were going to be announcing something interesting about the ocean worlds of the Solar System. They were vague on details, but Mike Brown confirmed what I’d always expected: Europan Space Whales.

I was all ready to hear their mournful songs, muffled by kilometers of ice, but I was sadly disappointed.

Okay fine, the reality turned out to be pretty cool too. NASA announced that they’ve found evidence that there’s hydrogen gas pouring into the water of one of Saturn’s icy moons: Enceladus. The source of this hydrogen is probably some kind of hydrothermal activity down beneath the ocean.

The tidal interactions between Enceladus and Saturn heat up the moon, giving it vast oceans, which spews water into space from cracks at its southern pole.

Here on Earth, remember, wherever we find water, we find life. And one really interesting place that we find life is surrounding volcanic hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean. These volcanic vents belch plumes of material into the ocean, and serve as the energy source for a vast array of lifeforms.

Heat loving thermophilic bacteria known as methanogens absorb the hydrogen coming from these vents and use them as an energy source. Other creatures eat this bacteria, and you’ve got a thriving ecosystem and food chain.

One of the most interesting things about these hydrothermal vents is how they provide a completely separate ecosystem from the rest of life on Earth. They couldn’t care one bit if the Sun disappeared tomorrow, and all life died. They’d keep slurping up their hydrogen gas, going and going.

And that’s why this discovery about Enceladus is so exciting. In their announcement, planetary scientists working with Cassini described how the spacecraft detected this hydrogen gas in the plumes blasting out of Enceladus.

On October 28, 2015, the spacecraft made its deepest dive through the plumes coming out of Enceladus. It sampled the icy material and found that 98% of the plumes is water, 1% is hydrogen, and the rest is a mixture of ammonia, methane and carbon dioxide.

Cassini isn’t equipped to search for life. It just doesn’t have the instruments on board. Its Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer instrument did the next best thing. It found food for bacteria. When this environment is found on Earth, bacteria has a feeding frenzy.

That’s pretty exciting. The discovery over on Europa is different. Astronomers had suspected there were plumes on Europa like Enceladus, based on images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope back in 2014. But the results were inconclusive.

The Hubble team took a second round of images in 2016, and detected plumes coming from the same region of Europa, confirming their existence. Is there hydrogen gas in those plumes too? We have no idea yet, but we soon will.

In a second, I’m going to explain what we’re going to do about this. What plans are in place to study this even further, but first I’d like to thank Khaled Al Tal, Isaac Arthur, Lee Stuurmans, Larry Johnson, Ryan Williams, and the rest of our 705 patrons for their generous support. If you love what we’re doing and want to help out, head over to patreon.com/universetoday.

Now we see another tantalizing clue that there could be life in the oceans of Europa and Enceladus, what are we doing to do about it? What plans are in place to go back and study these worlds up close?

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