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What plumes on Enceladus tell us about possibility of life on Saturn’s Moon?

What plumes on Enceladus tell us about possibility of life on Saturn’s Moon?

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Context: NASA’s (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) Cassini spacecraft had detected an unusually high concentration of methane, along with carbon dioxide and dihydrogen, in the moons of Saturn by flying through their plumes .

Highlights of the findings:

  • Cassini has found that Titan has methane in its atmosphere and Enceladus has a liquid ocean with erupting plumes of gas and water.
  • Using new statistical methods, an international research team has examined whether methanogens or microbes can produce methane while making molecular hydrogen.
  • Cassini found ice particles, salts, hydrogen and organic molecules in the plumes, tentative hints of an ocean that is similar to Earth’s oceans in composition.
  • There is also evidence for alkaline hydrothermal vents on Enceladus’ seafloor, similar to those that support methanogens in Earth’s oceans.

What are Methanogens and Are there methane-producing organisms on Earth?

  • Most of the methane on Earth has a biological origin. Microorganisms called methanogens are capable of generating methane as a metabolic by-product.
  • They do not require oxygen to live and are widely distributed in nature.
  • They are found in swamps, dead organic matter, and even in the human gut.
  • They are known to survive in high temperatures and simulation studies have shown that they can live in Martian conditions.
  • Methanogens have also been part of various studies to understand if they can be a contributor to global warming.

Could there be methanogens on Enceladus?

  • Using the newly developed model, the team gave a set of conditions, including dihydrogen concentration and different temperatures to understand if microbes would grow.
  • Methane could be formed by the chemical breakdown of organic matter present in Enceladus’ core.
  • Hydrothermal processes could help the formation of carbon dioxide and methane.
  • Enceladus’ hydrothermal vents could be habitable to Earth-like microorganisms (Methanogens).

About Cassini Mission:

  • Launched in 1997, the Cassini mission — a cooperation between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency — has sent back thousands of stunning images and made numerous discoveries about the ringed planet and its moons.
  • The spacecraft was launched on October 15, 1997. This was the first landing ever accomplished in the outer Solar System.
  • Cassini–Huygens is an unmanned spacecraft sent to the planet Saturn.
  • Cassini is the fourth space probe to visit Saturn and the first to enter orbit.
  • Its design includes a Saturn orbiter and a lander for the moon Titan. The lander, called Huygens, landed on Titan in 2005.

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