Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Life may hide beneath Enceladus

We may be closer to finding life in space.

As NASA's Cassini space probe passed Saturn's moon, Enceladus, it detected methane in the plume particles from geysers on the moon's south pole (pictured above). Exobiologists have determined that this methane could be caused by the presence of biological reactions from microorganisms, surviving even under the conditions present on Enceladus.

A few words of caution here. First, this study in no way affirms there is life on Enceladus. It just supports the idea that it's possible. Second, I know this is something of an old news story, but it went in my "blog file" and I'm just now getting to it. That's how it goes sometimes.

Life, if it exists on Enceladus, would have to inhabit the ocean that seems to sit beneath the moon's frozen surface. Scientists who took part in the study exposed a species of microbe called Methanothermococcus okinawensis to high pressure and temperatures of 150 degrees Fahrenheit, approximating hyrdothermal vents in the seas of Enceladus. Findings indicated that this variety of Earth microbe was well-suited for such conditions. Interestingly enough, the species of microbe, no, I'm not typing its name again, got its name from where it was found: living in a hydrothermal vent off Okinawa. Also interesting is that the species was probably around in the primordial goop of when life first emerged here on Earth. As we're learning, life can be found in all manner of bizarre, inhospitable places.

Other elements found in the geyser plume include silica particles and hydrogen. These are likely present due to reactions between rock and hot seawater. This indicates a sea that is warmed by geothermic activity, hence the geysers. As indicated previously, microbial life exists all over Earth in similar conditions, so it's not all that far-fetched that it might thrive on Enceladus, or Titan, or any of the moons of Saturn or Jupiter thought to have seas.

So perhaps it's not as exciting as finding an alien civilization, but it's still (maybe) life outside of Earth. Plus if you're going to populate your science fiction stories with extraterrestrial life, it's a good idea to know how that life might first come about on another planet. Likely, it would it start at the microbial level and...if allowed...evolve into higher lifeforms just as it did on Earth. 

Rather promising. For even though I'm rather certain there is life elsewhere in space, I no longer see any logical reason to assume it as a given.

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