NASA held a press conference on Thursday to announce the detection of a form of chemical energy on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, and believed to be present on Jupiter’s moon, Europa.  The press conference was held on the same day new scientific papers were published by scientists tied to NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn and the Hubble Space Telescope that outlines the same revelations NASA addressed in its statements.

“This is the closest we’ve come, so far, to identifying a place with some of the ingredients needed for a habitable environment,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at Headquarters in Washington. ”These results demonstrate the interconnected nature of NASA’s science missions that are getting us closer to answering whether we are indeed alone or not.”

Enceladus and Europa are both referred to by NASA as “Ocean Worlds,” as they are believed to house massive, liquid water oceans beneath their icy exterior crusts.  The recent revelation of hydrogen plumes seemingly released from Enceladus’ surface, at the very bottom of its icy-enclosed ocean, provides the strongest evidence yet that the building blocks for life as we know may exist elsewhere within our own solar system.

“Confirmation that the chemical energy for life exists within the ocean of a small moon of Saturn is an important milestone in our search for habitable worlds beyond Earth,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

In effect, hydrogen can serve as a food source for the most fundamental levels of life.  That isn’t to say, however, that only microbial life may exist in the vast oceans of these “water worlds.”  Basic life can obtain energy by combining hydrogen with carbon dioxide dissolved in the water in a process known as “methanogenesis,” dubbed as such because methane is the byproduct produced by this process.  Scientists believe methanogenesis may have been fundamental to the development of early life on our own planet.

“Although we can’t detect life, we’ve found that there’s a food source there for it. It would be like a candy store for microbes,” said Hunter Waite, lead author of the Cassini study.

A form of life that lives off of the energy absorbed through these hydrogen plumes could then serve as the basis of an entire potential ecosystem, effectively forming the living bedrock of a chain of species serving as predator and prey.

Of course, that’s assuming there’s any life there at all.  As one NASA scientist pointed out during the question and answer portion of the press conference, the presence of measurable amounts of hydrogen in the plumes of water being ejected from Enceladus’ icy surface might indicate that there is no life present to eat it; comparing it to a pile of pizzas in a graduate school dorm.  If the pizza is still there, it might mean there weren’t any students to gobble it up.

According to some NASA officials, this may mean Europa is a better candidate for life, though they were quick to point out that it’s not impossible that life could have developed on a number of icy moons throughout our solar system in this way.  It was also pointed out that Saturn’s moon Enceladus may be much younger than its four-billion-year-old peers in orbit around Jupiter.

The upcoming Europa Clipper mission scheduled for launch in the 2020s will explore plumes witnessed on Europa by the Hubble Space Telescope, and use an array of scientific measurement tools, cameras, and sensors intended to analyze the makeup of the water vapor being shot as high as sixty miles above the moon’s ice covered surface.

“If there are plumes on Europa, as we now strongly suspect, with the Europa Clipper we will be ready for them,” said Jim Green, Director of Planetary Science, at NASA Headquarters.

Readings from the Europa Clipper mission could confirm the presence of the elements required for life to exist, and even provide evidence to suggest there is life beneath the frozen exterior of the moon.  Whether or not that life takes the form of tiny microbes or giant space-squids is, of course, unknown – but the craziest part of NASA’s press conference speaks to just that point.

When asked whether or not we could expect to see “giant squid” like creatures beneath the surface of Europa, NASA’s team were quick to point out that they have only discovered what could be the basis of a food chain, but not where that chain may go… effectively shrugging their shoulders as to the premise of the question.

In terms of the search for alien life, seeing American’s top space-scientists declare that they couldn’t rule out alien-squids living in our own solar system is about as crazy as a press conference can get.


Image courtesy of NASA