A discovery on one of Saturn's moons just changed the odds of alien life being out there

The possibility of alien life thriving somewhere other than Earth is now stronger than ever before.

Underwater hydrothermal vents — the same kind that may have spawned life on our planet — seem to be lining the ocean floors of Saturn’s tiny, water-rich moon called Enceladus, according to two recently published paper.

This is the most compelling evidence we have so far for the existence of these vents anywhere other than Earth. The latest discovery is a tantalising hint that the conditions right for life may be present outside of Earth.

While Enceladus is watery, it is no Earth: It is only about 300 miles across. But underneath a thick, icy, shell, lies a water ocean habitat that resembles the conditions on an adolescent Earth, between 3.5 and 4 billion years ago.

Back then, Earth was covered in a single, global ocean. Most of the ocean is thought to have been extremely acidic — to0 acidic to create life — except around certain underwater, hydrothermal vents where pockets of warm, less-acidic water could have formed. These conditions would have been the ideal place for life to arise on Earth, according to NASA scientist Michael Russel.

With Wendesday’s announcement in the journal Nature, hydrothermal vents with these pockets of warm water are now believed to exist outside of Earth — at the bottom of Enceladus’s oceans.

So how did these researchers find vents under miles of ice? Using the instruments on board the Cassini spacecraft, the team measured the size and number of silicon-rich, called silica, particles in Saturn’s second outer-most ring, the E ring. The E ring is made of particles that came from the moon’s ocean floor and therefore tells scientists something about what is going on underneath the surface.

Once formed, these particles rise to the surface where they escape to space through plumes off the moon’s south polar region, shown in the arresting image below taken by Cassini:

The silicates’ chemical makeup, size, and abundance gives an indication of what is forming in the ocean underneath Enceladus’s surface. And the result is incredibly exciting.

To show that these particles could come from hydrothermal vents, the team re-created them in the lab. To their surprise, they discovered that particles of this chemical composition, size, and abundance only grow under a very specific set of conditions.

What’s more shocking is that these conditions are remarkably similar to a unique, underwater environment here on Earth, called the Lost City, which some researchers consider the cradle of life.

A miraculous find

The Lost City is a field of hydrothermal vents that was first discovered in the mid-Atlantic ocean in the year 2000. Unlike other hydrothermal vents on Earth, this unique environment has basic, non-acidic, waters that clock in at comfortable temperatures between 100 and 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Other vents can reach up to a scorching 860 degrees Fahrenheit.

Moreover, the life that thrives in the Lost City is mostly simple microorganisms — nothing like the larger, more complex life forms hanging around other vents on Earth’s ocean floor. Some scientists think that these super-simple life forms could be close-descendants of the first single-celled life on Earth.

Th team’s latest discovery makes Enceladus one of the most likely places in the solar system where alien life could exist, Linda Spilker, a project scientist with Cassini at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who was not involved with the study, told Business Insider.

“You have energy, nutrients, and liquid water which create a potential habit that could support life,” Spilker said.

In another recent paper published online in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, a different team of researchers reports additional evidence supporting the presence of hydrothermal vents. The researchers used Cassini to measure the amount of methane inside of the plumes of Enceladus as Cassini flew threw them, and found more methane than what was expected.

Methane is one of the main products that the Lost City’s hydrothermal vents generate. This excess methane is likely coming from hydrothermal vents, Spilker said.

“The methane story helps verify what we found with the tiny sillica particles,” Spilker said.

These vents may be powered by tidal energy generated by Saturn’s powerful gravitational tug on the tiny moon.

A recipe for success

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science InstituteEnceladus floating in space beneath Saturn’s rings with a larger moon, Titan, in the background.

Scientists first discovered that Enceladus was spewing jets of water vapor and ice back in 2005. This discovery rocked the scientific community because it indicated that Enceladus hosted liquid water underneath its surface. That was the first time astrobiologists began looking at Enceladus as a possible place to harbour alien life.

Then, in 2009, scientists discovered that not only was there an ocean, but it was salty, like the oceans on Earth.

And now there’s compelling evidence that deep beneath the moon’s icy surface, these salty oceans contain active hydrothermal vents like the vents of the Lost City.

The only difference between Earth’s oceans and those on Enceladus is evidence of life.

Although Spilker said that the most likely source for both team’s measurements is hydrothermal vents, the authors of the Nature paper caution that farther investigations are needed to ultimately confirm the presence of active vents on Enceladus. It’s not like we can see them under all that ice and ocean.

The fact that we now have two very different measurements pointing to the same hydrothermic source, however, is encouraging.

The ultimate question

Cassini has made game-changing discoveries of Enceladus since it first began flying by the tiny moon in 2005, but it is not equipped with the right instruments to answer the ultimate question: Is there life on Enceladus?

And right now, NASA has no official plans to dispatch another spacecraft to Saturn any time soon, Spilker told Business Insider. Moreover, it takes at least three years to reach Saturn, so it’s going to be a while before we gain a better idea of what might be lurking beneath Enceladus’s surface.

Cassini is scheduled to make its last three visits to Enceldauds this year: two in October and the final flyby on December 19.

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