“Life on Enceladus” –Researchers Have Spent the Last 5 years Recreating Conditions of Its Ocean (Today’s Top Space Headline)

 

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Researchers at the University of Vienna have spent the last five years recreating the predicted conditions of Enceladus’s subsurface ocean in the lab. They designed experiments with temperatures, pressures, pH levels, and salinity similar to that of the Enceladian ocean. Into these environments they placed three strains of single-celled microorganisms called methanogenic archaea—bacteria that hate oxygen, love carbon dioxide and hydrogen, and produce methane as waste. Then the researchers watched the strains grow.


One grew successfully, reports The Atlantic, even when the scientists changed the environmental conditions, dialing them up or down, and introduced some compounds, like ammonia and formaldehyde, that are supposed to stunt growth. The researchers conclude that methane-producing microorganisms could thrive on Enceladus. Perhaps, they say, some of the methane Cassini detected may have come from such tiny aliens.

On Enceladus, “under these conditions, life could exist,” said Simon Rittmann, a researcher at the University of Vienna’s archaea biology and ecogenomics division who led the research. The findings were published Tuesday in Nature Communications.

The case for potential life in the underground ocean of Enceladus is looking better and better. In 2005, a NASA spacecraft flew past Enceladus, an icy moon of Saturn, snapping pictures and recording observations as it went. When scientists processed the data, they saw plumes of mist erupting from the cracked surface of the moon’s south pole and into the emptiness of space. The plumes, the spacecraft’s instruments had found, were made of water vapor.

Scientists were stunned. Enceladus is small, just 300 miles across, and its surface reflects sunlight rather than absorbs it. For these reasons, they had expected the moon to be frozen solid, yet here was some evidence to the contrary. Later observations found more proof that Enceladus was alive, geologically speaking, and hiding a liquid ocean between an icy crust and a rocky core.

Close flybys of Enceladus revealed that the moon’s plumes contained a smorgasbord of chemicals, including methane, carbon dioxide, ammonia, nitrogen, hydrogen, ammonia, and formaldehyde. Enceladus quickly became an extremely attractive candidate in the search for other life in the solar system. Life, at least life as we know it on Earth, arises from some molecules and a little water, and this Saturnian moon had both.

But the NASA spacecraft, Cassini, couldn’t tell us much more than that. It was equipped to sample the contents of the moon’s geysers, not determine whether they showed signs of microbial life. (Also, Cassini plummeted into Saturn’s atmosphere and disintegrated last September #RIP.) To investigate that tantalizing possibility, scientists had to bring Enceladus to them.

Methanogenic microorganisms are known to be tough creatures, capable of surviving many extremes, says Christa Schleper, the head of the division at the University of Vienna and one of the study’s authors. The new research shows that methanogens are “much more resilient and robust than maybe we anticipated,” she said. Scientists suspect methanogens may have even been the earliest forms of microbes on Earth, chomping away on carbon dioxide and hydrogen before enough oxygen rolled around to give rise to the first photosynthetic organisms, Schleper says.

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