Could methane on Saturn’s moon Enceladus be a sign of life?


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Some hardy Earth microbes may doubtless survive within the Saturn moon Enceladus’ buried ocean, gobbling up hydrogen produced by interactions between seawater and rock, a brand new research suggests.

And the microbes examined within the research churn out methane as a metabolic byproduct. That is intriguing, as a result of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft detected methane within the plume of particles blasted out into house by Enceladus’ highly effective south-pole geysers. 

“We have been in a position to present that, beneath putative Enceladus circumstances, organic methane manufacturing happens within the lab,” mentioned research co-author Simon Rittmann, of the Division of Ecogenomics and Programs Biology on the College of Vienna in Austria. [Amazing Photos of Saturn’s Icy Moon Enceladus] 

“Therefore, a few of the methane detected on Enceladus may in precept be of organic origin,” Rittmann instructed by way of electronic mail.

The researchers — led by Ruth-Sophie Taubner, additionally of the College of Vienna — carried out preliminary experiments on three species of methane-producing archaean microbes. Archaea are just like micro organism in that they lack a nucleus or every other membrane-bound inside constructions, however the former beasties symbolize a completely separate lineage that will go all the way in which again to the daybreak of life on Earth.

This exploratory work recognized one of many microbes, Methanothermococcus okinawensis, as the perfect suited to extra in-depth research beneath Enceladus-like circumstances. So the workforce uncovered M. okinawensis to quite a lot of gasoline compositions and (comparatively excessive) pressures at 150 levels Fahrenheit (65 levels Celsius) — principally, what you’d anticipate finding at hydrothermal vents on Enceladus’ seafloor.

Astronomers have inferred the existence of such vents on Enceladus from a number of Cassini observations. For instance, the Saturn orbiter noticed tiny silica particles and molecular hydrogen (H2) within the moon’s plume, each of that are finest defined by reactions between scorching water and rock.

M. okinawensis grew properly and produced methane within the workforce’s experiments, which maybe is not terribly shocking, provided that the organism was remoted from a hydrothermal vent off the Japanese island of Okinawa, at a depth of about three,200 ft (975 meters).

n addition, Taubner and her colleagues modeled the water-rock reactions doubtless occurring in Enceladus’ inside. They discovered that such reactions are doubtless producing a number of H2 — sufficient to maintain methanogenic organisms corresponding to M. okinawensis, if any exist on the Saturn satellite tv for pc. [Inside Enceladus, Icy Moon of Saturn (Infographic)] 

To be clear, research workforce members aren’t claiming that Enceladus’ methane is organic; in any case, the substance may be produced geologically as properly (by reactions between rock and scorching water, the truth is). However the brand new outcomes may assist inform the seek for life on ocean moons within the photo voltaic system, Rittmann mentioned.

“From an astronomical perspective, future missions to Enceladus or different icy moons must be geared up to have the ability to detect methanogenic biosignatures associated to methanogens, like sure lipids or ratios of sure carbon isotopes,” he mentioned.

There are at present no Enceladus missions on the books of NASA or every other house company. However each NASA and the European Area Company (ESA) are creating missions to discover the icy ocean moons of Jupiter. 

NASA’s entry, known as Europa Clipper, will assess the habitability of the buried ocean on the Jovian satellite tv for pc Europa over the course of dozens of flybys. ESA’s mission, known as Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE), can even research Europa, although it’ll focus extra on Ganymede and, to a lesser extent, Callisto. 

Europa Clipper and JUICE are each scheduled to launch within the 2020s. NASA can be engaged on a separate Europa lander mission, although that undertaking stays an idea for the time being.

The brand new research was revealed on-line as we speak (Feb. 27) within the journal Nature Communications.

Scientists have additionally noticed methane within the environment of Mars, and so they’re undecided the place the Crimson Planet’s retailer of the stuff is coming from. However extra data must be coming quickly: The Hint Gasoline Orbiter, a part of the European-Russian ExoMars exploration program, is scheduled to start measuring and mapping Mars methane in mid-April.

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