The ‘Cassini’ mission finds essential chemical compounds to support microbes on Saturn’s moon.
In October 2015, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft made a maneuver for which it had not been designed. The ship changed course and headed for the south pole of Enceladus, the icy moon of Saturn. For a few years now, this body, which barely exceeds 500 kilometers in diameter and whose rocky core is buried under a 40-kilometer thick ice sarcophagus, has been one of the main favorites to house life beyond the Earth.
Cassini aimed to analyze the composition of the gas clouds that emanate as geysers in the south pole of this moon. Those responsible for the mission of the US space agency scheduled a flight just 49 kilometers from the surface, the closest ever made. The ship crossed the clouds of Enceladus at 19,000 kilometers per hour, and its passage lasted just fractions of a second. The hope was to capture some of the water particles and the other compounds that emanate from the geysers at about 400 meters per second.
The most plausible thing is that the gases originated from hydrothermal activity.
The results of the analysis, published in the journal Science by the scientific team of the mission, point out that Enceladus can harbor simple life forms, similar to those that exist in the depths of Earth’s oceans. The mass spectrometer on board the probe shows that the gases spewed by the geysers contain hydrogen molecules and carbon dioxide. These two compounds account for 1.4% and 0.8% of the total volume, respectively.
The most plausible thing is that the gases originated from hydrothermal activity, scientists believe. On Earth, these types of processes occur at the bottom of oceans when magma at high temperatures comes in contact with rocks and water. Hydrothermal vents harbor microbial communities capable of feeding on the chemical compounds present in these environments. One of the hypotheses about the origin of life on Earth is that it arose from the heat of these underwater chimneys.
Some microbes inhabit these environments that use molecular hydrogen and carbon dioxide to generate methane. The presence of life would be one of the explanations of the existence of the two elements detected by Cassini in this last study, although they could also be due to other alien processes to the presence of microbes, warn those responsible for the work.