METHANE has been detected on Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus and the levels detected are consistent with that of microbes.
A new study suggests that this could be sign of life on Enceladus or just evidence of a chemical process we don’t yet understand.
Saturn’s Enceladus moon is thought to have a subsurface oceanCredit: Getty – Contributor
Beneath the moon’s icy surface, there’s thought to be a salty subsurface ocean.
This water bursts through the icy crust sometimes in giant plumes.
Nasa, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency sent a space probe called Cassini to dive through these plumes.
This is how large amounts of methane were detected as well as other molecules like dihydrogen and carbon dioxide.
An illustration of the interior of Saturn’s moon Enceladus showing a global liquid water ocean between its rocky core and icy crustCredit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Researchers think Enceladus’s seafloor could have hydrothermal vents similar to ones found on Earth.
We know that the Earthly hydrothermal vents are surrounded by microbes that consume dihydrogen and carbon dioxide and produce methane.
As part of a new experiment, a research team ran models to see what could be the most likely explanation for the large amounts of methane.
They planned out several different scenarios in which microbes would and wouldn’t survive and compared them to the results the Cassini probe detected.
Saturn could have up to 82 moonsCredit: Getty – Contributor
Régis Ferrière, co-lead study author, said: “In summary, not only could we evaluate whether Cassini’s observations are compatible with an environment habitable for life, but we could also make quantitative predictions about observations to be expected, should methanogenesis (by microbes) actually occur at Enceladus’ seafloor.
“Obviously, we are not concluding that life exists in Enceladus’ ocean.
“Rather, we wanted to understand how likely it would be that Enceladus’ hydrothermal vents could be habitable to Earthlike microorganisms.
“Very likely, the Cassini data tell us, according to our models. And biological methanogenesis appears to be compatible with the data.”
Astronomers will continue to research Saturn’s Enceladus moon to find out more.
The full study has been published in the journal Nature Astronomy.
Enceladus – the key facts
Here’s what you need to know…
- Enceladus is Saturn’s sixth-largest moon, with a diameter of 310 miles
- It’s roughly one-tenth the size of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan
- The moon is largely covered by fresh and clean ice, making it highly reflective
- This also means it’s very cold, with surface temperatures at noon reaching -198C
- The moon was first discovered by British astronomer William Herschel on August 28, 1789
- But we learned much more about it after Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft fly-bys. in the 1980s
- In 2014, Nasa found evidence to suggest there was a large subsurface ocean of liquid water on Enceladus
- And in 2018, scientists discovered complex macromolecular organics on the moon’s jet plumes
- This has given scientists hope for finding evidence of alien life on the moon
In other news, China successfully launched a three person crewed mission to build its own space station.
The European Space Agency has revealed it will be sending a probe called EnVision to study the planet Venus.
Scientist Brian Cox believes there could be 200 billion alien civilisations in the universe.
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