"Hydrogen is a source of chemical energy for microbes that live in the Earth's oceans near hydrothermal vents", said SwRI's Dr. Hunter Waite, principal investigator of Cassini's Ion Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS). This chemical reaction, known as "methanogenesis" because it produces methane as a byproduct, is key to forming life.
But in 2005 the unmanned Cassini spacecraft was orbiting Saturn when it picked up plumes of vapour coming from the "tiger stripes", or deep fissures, in the moon's surface.
For the time being we just don't know - but the ingredients for life are there, based on the research published today.
It shows similarities to Earth's hydrothermal vents, which supports microbial life on the ocean floor through the chemical energy from hydrogen.
Cassini, an unmanned NASA spacecraft, has detected hydrogen molecules in geysers shooting off the moon Enceladus. "After over 10 years of the Cassini mission, this represents a capstone finding for the mission and means that Enceladus has nearly all of the ingredients you would need to support life here on Earth". The only thing we haven't seen is phosphorus and sulfur, and that's probably because they were in small enough quantities that we didn't see them.
Cassini also sampled the plume's composition during flybys earlier in the mission.
The probe found the hydrogen when it made its last and closest pass through plumes at Enceladus' south pole on October 28, 2015.
Europa, an ice-covered moon of Jupiter also believed to have a subsurface ocean, may have water vapor jets spewing into space as well, similar to Enceladus.
Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the agency's Science Mission Directorate, started the news conference off by saying "we can't answer it now, hopefully in the near future, but is there life elsewhere?"
The discovery of extraterrestrial life in the universe would be a game-changing milestone for science, and new findings revealed by NASA on Thursday give hope we could still uncover that evidence in our own solar system.
Dr David Clements, an astrophysicist at Imperial College London, said: "This discovery does not mean that life exists on Enceladus, but it is a step on the way to that result".
A liquid ocean exists beneath the icy surface of Enceladus, which is barely 300 miles (500 kilometers) across. David Rothery, professor of planetary geosciences at the Open University, said: "At present, we know of only one genesis of life, the one that led to us". The plan is to take a closer look at this plume using the Europa Clipper, an exploratory probe similar to Cassini planned for launch in the 2020s.
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