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Methane mystery on Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus: Could it be a sign of life?


An artist’s illustration shows Cassini flying through a cloud from Saturn’s moon Enceladus.


While we are busy digging around in Mars’ dry dust and the atmosphere of Venus looking for signs of microbes, the Saturnian moon Enceladus sends out plums shouting, “Hey, people, I might be a good place for life!” Microbes may be a possible cause of exciting methane readings from the moon, a new study suggests.

NASA is very departed Cassini spacecraft collected data on the chemical composition of water joints erupting from Enceladus. It found a surprisingly large amount of methane, a gas often associated with life here on Earth.

Cassini also logged a relatively high concentration of molecules of dihydrogen and carbon dioxide along with the methane. “We wanted to know: Could Earth-like microbes that ‘eat’ the dihydrogen and produce methane explain the surprisingly large amount of methane discovered by Cassini?” University of Arizona biologist Regis Ferriere said in a statement Tuesday. Ferriere is a co-author of a study of the moon’s feathers published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Previous studies have shown Enceladus has the ingredients to support life. It has one sea ​​underground with a source of heat. Scientists see possible parallels between the Enceladus clouds and hydrothermal vents on Earth’s ocean floor.

Ferriere and colleagues used mathematical models to determine which processes could explain the Cassini metadata. “They conclude that Cassini’s data are consistent either with microbial hydrothermal ventilation activity or with processes that do not involve life forms but are different from those known to occur on Earth,” the university said.

The researchers do not say that there is life on Enceladus, but they do say that microbes are a possible explanation for the data. Further research will be required to determine if our prolonged search for life beyond Earth could find success on the Saturnian moon.

Enceladus is not the only place in the solar system with a methane mystery. NASA is working on why its curiosity rover discovers methane near Earth on Mars while an orbiting spacecraft does not find the gas higher in the atmosphere.

The search for signs of Mars microbes is a noble mission and probably an easier one to accomplish than figuring out exactly what’s going on with Enceladus. “Searching for such microbes, known as methanogens, off the seabed of Enceladus would require extremely challenging deep-sea missions that have not been in sight for decades,” Ferriere said.

Maybe put it on the calendar for a few decades in the future, NASA.

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