NASA held a press conference today to announce some groundbreaking data gathered by its Cassini probe mission. According to the accompanying NASA press release, the Cassini missions have discovered what may be the closest thing to actually finding evidence of life in our solar system. Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington D.C. says this research is inching us closer to finally finding life (or the absence of it) in our solar system:
This is the closest we’ve come, so far, to identifying a place with some of the ingredients needed for a habitable environment. These results demonstrate the interconnected nature of NASA’s science missions that are getting us closer to answering whether we are indeed alone or not.
The announcement comes after researchers finally analyzed several years’ worth of data gathered by the Cassini spacecraft. During the course of its mission, the Cassini probe detected molecular hydrogen in the gaseous plumes rising from Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Molecular hydrogen is a chemical by-product of hydrothermal activity – activity which has long been assumed to create the conditions necessary for life and organic molecules.
Hunter Waite, lead author of the Cassini-based research, says that this discovery might not be alien lifeforms, but it’s certainly our best bet for finding them yet:
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.
Many types of microbes surrounding hydrothermal vents on Earth are sustained by a chemical reaction known as methanogenesis in which molecular hydrogen and carbon dioxide are combined to make energy, releasing methane in the process. Since 2005, scientists have speculated that Enceladus has a subsurface ocean of water; this latest data shows that Enceladus’s water may indeed be right for sustaining life.
Aside from the Enceladus announcement, the press conference also presented research published in The Astrophysical Letters Journal which shows that conditions on Europa, a moon of Jupiter, may also be right for creating organic molecules or even sustaining life. Data gathered by the Hubble Space Telescope has revealed several warm spots on the icy moon which, like Enceladus, occasionally erupt in gaseous plumes. To investigate these plumes further, NASA will launch the Europa Clipper mission at some point in the next decade to study the moon up close.
Hubble has seen plumes erupting from Europa twice in two years, leading NASA to believe there could be substantial hydrothermal activity on the moon.
The search for life in our solar system has for some time been centered on some of the many moons that surround our neighboring planets. Earlier this year, NASA released data showing that the chemical and geological conditions on one of Jupiter’s moons could potentially support life. Clouds of nitrates have been spotted forming on one of Saturn’s moons, Titan, leading some scientists to believe that conditions there might support the synthesis of organic molecules. Another Saturnian moon, Dione, displays strange gravitational anomalies that could only be explained by a deep subsurface ocean.