Why the moons of Jupiter and Saturn may be the key to finding alien life

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In the hunt for life outside Earth, Mars is old news.

“I think I would rank Enceladus now on Europa, and there were people who said Europe was a better prospect than Mars,” said Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute, a nonprofit near of San Francisco who specializes in the search for life outside of Earth. “So our ideas about where we might find creatures of some sort keep changing.”

Enceladus is an icy moon of Saturn, once overlooked by astronomers who thought it was too cold for life to evolve, much like they did with one of Jupiter’s moons, Europe. Now, thanks to several scientific discoveries, including potential chemical “biosignatures”, scientists have started to focus on the possibility that these celestial bodies may harbor microbial life.

There are already tantalizing clues that fundamental life forms may have evolved on other planets and possibly moons in the solar system. But as in most fields of scientific research, one step forward is sometimes followed by two steps back. For example, research in September that suggested that phosphine gas in Venus clouds could be a sign of life has since been countered by studies that question its findings.

Together, the studies indicate that the search for extraterrestrial life in our solar system (scientists are also looking for life on exoplanets around distant stars, as well as radio signals that may have come from distant civilizations) has widened to- beyond an initial assumption that this could first be found on planets like Mars or Venus.

An illustration of Cassini plunging through the plume of Enceladus in 2015.NASA / JPL-Caltech

Several scientific papers this year address the search for faint signs of life in our solar system – with an article on Enceladus last month offering one of the more intriguing perspectives.

The paper, published in the journal Nature Astronomy, is based on samples of water plumes ejected from Enceladus taken by the Cassini space probe from 2005 to 2015. The probe found high concentrations of methane and surprisingly high levels of hydrogen, which fit the idea that microbes evolved to live around hydrothermal vents. on the seabed, said study co-author Regis Ferriere, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona at Tucson.

Saturn’s moon Enceladus, photographed by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft on October 28, 2015.NASA / JPL-Caltech

The Enceladus Ocean is believed to consist of saltwater 12 to 15 miles deep, topped by up to 20 miles of icy crust. Scientists believe that it is heated by the movement of rocks from the moon’s core in Saturn’s intense gravitational field, and that cracks in the crust created by the same tidal forces eject water from the ocean into it. space, Ferriere said in an email.

Methane in the ocean could be explained by purely chemical processes, he said. But the study showed that it was “very likely” to have been made by microbes, as long as it was accepted that life could evolve around hydrothermal vents – a very controversial issue, he said. declared.

The hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean on Earth – the so-called black smokers – thrive on microbes that feed on the chemicals emitted by the vents. They form the basis of a food chain that supports entire deep-water ecosystems of tube worms, shellfish and crustaceans without the sunlight required by photosynthetic plants. It is not known, however, if life originally evolved there or if it first evolved on the sunlit surface.

As scientists search for signs of life in the outer solar system, the debate over phosphine on Venus is still hot. Scientists first suggested in September that the phosphine gas they detected could be produced by microbes in its sulfuric acid clouds. Since then, other researchers have suggested that they may not have seen any phosphine at all or that the phosphine was really the result of volcanoes or that there was not enough water in the clouds. To maintain a known life form anyway.

Artist’s impression showing a sectional view of the interior of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, October 26, 2015.NASA / JPL-Caltech

Cornell University professor of astronomy Jonathan Lunine, co-author of study published Monday which suggests that the phosphine could be caused by volcanoes, said only future space probes could solve questions about life on Venus – like the two missions announced by NASA last month.

Lunine also worked on the MISE instrument on NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, which will analyze infrared light reflected from Jupiter’s moon when it arrives there towards the end of this decade.

Europe, like Enceladus, is thought to have an underground ocean of liquid water beneath its frozen surface, although relatively little is known of it. But it’s believed to be older, bigger, and possibly warmer than the ocean on Enceladus, and it could turn out to be one of the most likely places in the solar system for alien life to have evolved. .

“We’ll just have to wait for Europa Clipper,” Lunine said.


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