Ingredients for life exist on Saturn's moon Enceladus

A suspected plume of material erupted two years apart from the same location on Jupiter's icy moon Europa. Both plumes

A suspected plume of material erupted two years apart from the same location on Jupiter's icy moon Europa. Both plumes

NASA on Thursday announced that Saturn's moon Enceladus has "a form of chemical energy that life can feed on", while Jupiter's moon Europa also shows signs of erupting plumes. These new findings show that Enceladus "has almost all of these ingredients for habitability".

The chemical ingredients of life include carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur.

Chemical analysis of the plume suggested conditions favourable for methanogenesis - the generation of methane by microbes that use hydrogen and carbon dioxide to obtain energy.

With this finding, "we now know Enceladus has nearly all of the ingredients that you need to support life as we know it on Earth", Spilker said.

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?"

NASA's Cassini spacecraft detected the presence of molecular hydrogen in water plumes erupting from Saturn's icy moon Enceladus, the US space agency announced Thursday, suggesting that the distant world has nearly all the conditions necessary for life. The findings were presented in papers published by researchers with NASA's Cassini mission to Saturn and work on the Hubble Space Telescope. The plumes also correspond with a relatively warm region on Europa's surface observed by the Galileo spacecraft.

In deep thermal vents beneath the oceans here on Earth known as "white smokers", hydrogen gas is formed through interactions between the heated water and surrounding rock.

Previous NASA Cassini spacecraft flybys of Enceladus showed that the moon has a global subsurface ocean under its core, because of the gaseous plume erupting from cracks in the moon's surface.

Leader of the Cassini Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Hunter Waite, said: "Now, Enceladus is high on the list in the solar system for showing habitable conditions".

A liquid ocean exists beneath the icy surface of Enceladus, which is barely 300 miles (500 kilometers) across.

On Thursday, NASA scientists said they have detected evidence that this kind of chemical reaction is likely occurring under the surface of Enceladus. That's how the Cassini team found hydrogen in the water. By flying through a plume spraying out of its icy shell, Cassini was able to detect molecular hydrogen.

NASA's Planetary Science Division Director, James Green, said: "We're pushing the frontiers".

NASA says the discovery will help it to better equip the Europa Clipper mission set for the 2020's when a probe will visit the moon to examine the plumes.