BALTIMORE (WJZ) — An ocean world locked under ice is now showing signs it could support life.
Alex DeMetrick reports, it’s happening on one of the moons orbiting Saturn.
The Cassini–Huygens spacecraft has been studying Saturn and its moons for 13 years.
The moon Enceladus is of special interest. Plumes of water vapor erupt from its South Pole. When Cassini–Huygens passed through those plumes, it found “that hydrogen is coming from a hydro-thermal vent on the seafloor of Enceladus, going out into space in the plume,” according to Dr. Linda Spilker, a Cassini–Huygens project scientist.
The theory: hydro-thermal vents deep in Earth’s oceans produce hydrogen that microbes use for food. The same thing could well be happening inside Enceladus.
And on Jupiter’s moon Europa, that Hubble Space Telescope has spotted an immense plume above its icy crust.
“We’re pushing the frontiers,” says Dr. Jim Green, a NASA planetary scientist. “We’re looking in a way that we’ve never thought possible before for environments in our solar system which may harbor life.”
Cassini–Huygens scientists don’t want that life polluted, and spoke earlier with WJZ about burning the spacecraft up in Saturn’s atmosphere, to keep it from hitting something else.
“And then possibly eventually impacting one of the moons,” says Dr. Conor Nixon, of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. “We’re worried there may be life on, for example Enceladus. We want to protect those moons from any bacteria that may be carried on the spacecraft from the Earth, so it’s still a pristine environment.”
Because, Dr. Spilker says, “we now know that Enceladus has almost all the ingredients you would need to support life as we know it.”
NASA’s next mission to Saturn and its moons won’t happen until sometime in the 2020s.