Saturn’s frigid moon Enceladus boasts 'chemical buffet' needed for life

| | March 5, 2018

Life as we know it needs three things: energy, water and chemistry. Saturn's icy moon Enceladus has them all, as NASA spacecraft Cassini confirmed in the final years of its mission to that planet.

While Cassini explored the Saturnian neighborhood, its sensors detected gas geysers that spewed from Enceladus's southern poles. Within those plumes exists a chemical buffet of carbon dioxide, ammonia and organic compounds such as methane. Crucially, the jets also contained molecular hydrogen — two hydrogen atoms bound as one unit. This is a coin of the microbial realm that Earth organisms can harness for energy. Beneath Enceladus's ice shell is a liquid ocean.

As harsh as the moon’s conditions are, a recent experiment suggests that Enceladus could support organisms like those that thrive on Earth. Tiny colonies of microbes that dwell near our planet’s hydrothermal vents can tolerate a simulated Enceladus habitat, according to a new report by a team of researchers in Austria and Germany. “We tried to reproduce the putative Enceladus-like conditions in the lab,” said [researcher] Simon Rittmann.

One species tested, an archaeon called Methanothermococcus okinawensi, fared the best on faux Enceladus.

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M. okinawensi uses carbon dioxide as a carbon source and molecular hydrogen for energy, as a suspected Enceladus microbe might.

Read full, original post: Alien life could thrive in a place like Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus, experiment shows

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