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NASA announces that Saturn's moon could support life

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NASA scientists announce compelling evidence for hydrothermal vents on Saturn's moon Enceladus.

NASA had created quite a stir earlier this week with the announcement that it was going to reveal new discoveries about alien oceans in the Solar System, based on findings from the Cassini spacecraft and Hubble Space Telescope.

That chemical, detected by the Cassini spacecraft, is molecular hydrogen (H2), which is produced by hydrothermal vents in the Earth's sea floor that are harbors for microbial life. They also informed about Jupiter's moon Europa erupting plumes.

Chemical analysis of the plume suggested conditions favourable for methanogenesis - the generation of methane by microbes that use hydrogen and carbon dioxide to obtain energy.

The moon Enceladus is just 502 kilometers (311 miles) in diameter and has an icy surface, a rocky interior and an ocean of liquid water sandwiched between the two.

"It could be a potential source for energy from any microbes", Fox News quoted Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

"Most of us would be excited with any life", said Mary Voytek, an astrobiology senior scientist for NASA.

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Twitter was gung-ho about investigating more closely, although at least one tweeter was rather blasé about the find. Scientists have long known about the plumes of water vapor spewing from cracks at the moon's south pole, thanks to Cassini.

"This is the closest we've come, so far, to identifying a place with some of the ingredients needed for a habitable environment", Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at Headquarters in Washington, said in a statement.

From these observations scientists have determined that almost 98 percent of the gas in the plume is water, about one percent is hydrogen and the rest is a mixture of other molecules including carbon dioxide, methane and ammonia.

After that ends, it's not clear when another spacecraft will head to Saturn's moon.

"Enceladus is high on the list in the solar system for showing habitable conditions", said lead author Hunter Waite. "After over 10 years of the Cassini mission, this represents a capstone finding for the mission and means that Enceladus has nearly all of the ingredients you would need to support life here on Earth".

The space agency presented its findings in a paper, which was published on April 13 in the journal Science.

NASA's Planetary Science Division Director, James Green, said: "We're pushing the frontiers".

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