Ocean world near Saturn top contender for life beyond Earth

But similar plumes have erupted less frequently on Jupiter's moon Europa, which has a similar icy shell to Enceladus, presenting potentially correlating life-fostering conditions. "This is a very significant finding because the hydrogen could be a potential source of chemical energy for any microbes that might be in Enceladus's ocean".

Zurbuchen added that the missions were getting humans closer to understanding whether they were "indeed alone or not".

While it's not expected that NASA will announce any concrete evidence for extraterrestrial life, the agency has promised to reveal new information about our solar system's ocean worlds collected by the Hubble and soon-to-be-departed Cassini spacecrafts.

Hydrogen was detected by Cassini in the gas plumes and icy material that was spotted spraying from Enceladus while it was having a close flyby in October 2015. There, in addition to water, it was able to identify traces of methane, ammonia, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, simple organic molecules and salts.

To be clear, scientists haven't discovered evidence of organisms on Enceladus, but they encouraged by the processes producing chemical energy, which could feed life.

Professor David Rothery, professor of planetary geosciences at The Open University, said: 'We have now got all the ingredients we need to support life on Enceladus.

And on Jupiter's moon Europa, that Hubble Space Telescope has spotted an enormous plume above its icy crust.

The decision to end the mission was made in 2010, in order to avoid damaging moons like Enceladus, which could be explored for signs of life in the future. Cassini detected some of the chemical elements needed for life in plumes of gas and particles erupting from the moon's surface.

Is there life on Enceladus?

Waite said the hydrogen is likely produced "by chemical reactions between warm water and rocks".

The hydrogen, which shoots out of the moon in high-powered ice jets, is the final puzzle piece following the discovery of its liquid ocean and carbon dioxide. Observations from the Galileo spacecraft was used to corroborate the Hubble findings, to show that the region was unusually warm.

The latest findings that Enceladus could support life forms evidences that hydrothermal activities are occurring in its ocean.

Cassini's INMS was devised to sample the upper atmosphere of Saturn's moon Titan.

The hydrogen found "speaks to the habitability" of the moon, Voytek says. In particular, both investigations are laying the groundwork for NASA's Europa Clipper mission, which is planned for launch in the 2020s. "We discovered that Europa's plume candidate is sitting right on the thermal anomaly", said William Sparks of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland.

NASA doesn't usually hold news conferences for minor discoveries or observations, so when the agency announced that it would be holding a press conference this week to talk about oceans on other planets, we knew it had to be something particularly interesting.

  • Joey Payne