Enceladus, a good candidate for extraterrestrial life

A recent scientific study has shown that Enceladus could be conducive to life. This sixth natural satellite of Saturn would be the place with the most potential in the solar system. Parts of its surface are old and cratered. The rest are relatively young and bright. These properties have led researchers to believe that there is a permanent geological activity that may be at the origin of materials in Saturn's E ring.

This study began after the discovery of molecular hydrogen in steam plumes from Enceladus thanks to the Cassini spacecraft. This chemical compound has all the substances necessary for there to be methanogenesis. It is a source of food for microbes, and therefore a source of life.

Enceladus, a good candidate for extraterrestrial life
The planet Saturn, with Mimas (right) and Enceladus (bottom). Credits NASA / ESA / A. Simon / Goddard Space Flight Center / MH Wong / OPAL

Since there are no spaceships around Enceladus and no way to collect information, scientists have modeled its environment. The study was focused on the relationship between energy and biology.

An ocean under the ice of Saturn's moon

The authors of this study focused on two key concepts, including chemical affinity and energy flow. They concluded that it is the capacity to produce oxidants that determines the amount of energy available for life. According to the simulation, Enceladus would be able to create enough to house lives.

Scientists believe that this moon of Saturn, about 500 km in diameter, has a hot and salty underground ocean below its icy surface. This expanse of ice would have to be broken down to release radiolytic oxidants.

The production of oxidants in the ocean and the seabed of Enceladus could drive metabolic processes even beyond methanogenesis. This phenomenon offers the possibility of having a more diverse microbial community.

To read also: Enceladus would shelter ice at the level of its pole

An exploration project towards Enceladus

“The detection of molecular hydrogen (H2) indicated that there is energy available in the ocean of Enceladus. So, the production of oxidants and the chemistry of oxidation could lead to metabolically diverse life and microbial community on Enceladus. "

Ray, the lead author of this study

A space mission to Enceladus is already underway. With the Enceladus Life Finder, NASA plans to send a solar-powered orbiter around Saturn. As soon as the craft is ready, it will repeatedly fly through the steam plumes of Enceladus to collect data.

“We have to prepare a mission on Enceladus to confirm or exclude. We need a spaceship with finer instruments to travel through the plumes of Enceladus and take action. "

Dr Christopher Glein, co-author, principal investigator at SwRI

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