According to new research by scientists at the University of Washington, in an underground ocean Saturn’s moon Enceladus contains a very high concentration of carbon dioxide and hydrogen, as well as close to the earth’s pH level that could provide favorable conditions for life. The existence of such high concentrations could provide the fuel — a kind of chemical “free lunch” for living organisms.
This was reported by chief investigator Lucas phifer. Or it could mean that there is nobody around who eats this fuel. New information on the composition of the ocean of Enceladus gives planetary scientists a better understanding of the ability of the ocean to store life, says phifer.
Eating bacteria of Enceladus?
Enceladus is a small moon, ocean world is approximately 500 kilometers in diameter. The salty underground ocean is of interest because of the similarity in pH, salinity and temperature to Earth’s oceans. Plumes of water vapor and ice particles discovered and studied by the spacecraft “Cassini“, spewing hundreds of miles into space from the ocean through cracks in the ice-covered surface, scientists tease, inviting them to explore what it could contain an ocean beneath the surface.
But phifer and his colleagues argue that these plumes are chemically not identical with the ocean, from which erupt at the speed of 1,400 kilometers per hour; the process of eruption changes composition. Their work, the scientists will present on June 24 at the astrobiology conference AbSciCon2019 in Bellevue.
Phifer said that the plumes provide an “imperfect” window to the composition of the subsurface ocean of Enceladus, and the composition of the plume and the ocean can be very different. This is due to the fractionation of plume, i.e., separation of gases, in which some components of the loop break, and others are left behind.
With this in mind, scientists have returned to the mission, and Cassini have created a computer model that takes into account the effects of fractionation in order to obtain a clearer view on the composition of the interior ocean of Enceladus. Previous interpretations as they found out, underestimated the presence of hydrogen, methane and carbon dioxide in the ocean.
“It is better to find a high concentration of gas than anything,” says phifer. “It seems unlikely that life could evolve and use all of these free gases, if they were not present in the ocean in abundance.”
Such high levels of carbon dioxide also mean lower, similar to the earth level of acidity in the ocean of Enceladus. It is also good for life.
“Although there are exceptions, most of the life on Earth better lives in the water or consumes water with an almost neutral pH, similar conditions on Enceladus can be encouraging,” he says. “And they greatly facilitate the comparison of this strange ocean world with a more familiar environment”.
Also on Enceladus may be high ammonia, which can be a potential fuel for life. Although high concentrations of gases can talk about the lack of living organisms that will be used, this does not mean that Enceladus deprived of life. Maybe microbes are simply not enough to consume all of the available chemical energy.
Scientists can use gas concentration to determine the upper limit of the certain types of the possible life that may exist in the icy ocean of Enceladus. In other words, “given what is available so much free food, what is the maximum number of its life can eat to leave behind the amount that we see?”.
“Future mission spacecraft will try plumes in taste in search of signs of life.”
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