Ocean world near Saturn hotter-than-ever contender for life

We've got the Cassini spacecraft to thank for the new findings, as the probe has been busy taking measurements around Saturn and Enceladus since 2004.

"Although we can't detect life, we've found that there's a food source there for it". The team suggests that this phenomenon is a chemical effect of interactions between the rocky core and warm water from the underground ocean of the moon.

NASA and others are quick to point out this latest discovery does not mean there's life on Enceladus (ehn-SEHL'-uh-duhs), but that there may be conditions favorable for life.

The oceans exist a few miles below the surface of Enceladus, therefore researchers must draw conclusions from the vapors that rise into the atmosphere through the cracks in the ice. As University of MI planetary scientist Sushil Atreya told Scientific American, water is necessary for life as-we-know-it for a number of important reasons: "Liquid water acts as a solvent, as a medium and as a catalyst for certain types of proteins, and those are three main things that allow life to flourish".

On Earth, such hydrothermal vents support thriving communities of life in complete isolation from sunlight.

The abundance of hydrogen, the scientists conferred in the summary of their findings, suggests a "state of chemical disequilibria in the Enceladus ocean".

An illustration of Cassini above Saturn.

During earlier flybys, the spacecraft also sampled the gas plumes' composition.

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Nasa's Cassini spacecraft has picked up the first evidence that chemical reactions occurring deep below the ice could create an environment capable of supporting microbes - or living organisms. "This is the most exciting discovery in my eight-year career at NASA", said senior astrobiologist Mary Voytek.

Scientists used to believe oceans made our planet unique but now NASA says ocean worlds are all around us.

They described their findings in the journal Science.

Cassini, on its final mission before it runs out of fuel and is allowed to burn up its space, was sent diving deep into the jets.

A photograph of Enceladus taken by Cassini in November 2016. Linda Spilker, Cassini Project Scientists, says instruments found a critical element in those plumes. "The plumes on Enceladus are associated with hotter regions, so after Hubble imaged this new plume-like feature on Europa, we looked at that location on the Galileo thermal map". It's set to launch sometime in the 2020s.

Is there life on Enceladus?

Alien life was once only thought possible on habitable planets within the "Goldilocks zone" - far away enough from our sun not to be a fireball, but not so far as to be freezing.

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