NewsFix in Space: NASA announces possible life on another planet

In what NASA calls Cassini's "Grand Finale", the spacecraft will fly past the moon Titan on April 24, using the moon's gravity to bend the probe's trajectory enough to set up repeated, somewhat risky, passes between Saturn's cloud tops and the inner edge of its ring system.

Extra-terrestrial life may be closer to us than originally thought, beneath the ice-crusted moon of Enceladus, that is, Saturn's moon.

It is already known that three crucial ingredients are required for life to exist - water, right chemical matters which are the building blocks of life like carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulphur and a source of energy for metabolism.

"The hydrogen is coming from a hydrothermal vent on the sea floor of Enceladus, going out into space in the plume", said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

The consequent chemical reaction known as methanogenesis, which creates methane as a byproduct, is "at the root of the tree of life" on our planet and could have been crucial to the origin of life on Earth.

Though the findings did not provide any direct evidence for supporting life forms, the researchers note that the discovery has shared the presence of a food source for the microbes, which would possibly be like a "candy store" for them.

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

Scientists believe there is an ocean of tidally heated liquid water beneath Enceladus' surface - making it a prime target in the search for extra-terrestrial life.

An artist's rendering showing Cassini diving through the plume on Enceladus in 2015. These organisms could be the foundation of a larger ecosystem in Saturn's moon.

From these observations scientists have determined that almost 98 per cent of the gas in the plume is water, about 1 per cent is hydrogen and the rest is a mixture of other molecules including carbon dioxide, methane and ammonia. The Hubble space telescope is observing Europa from a distance for evidence of plumes of water, similar to the ones seen on Enceladus.

These composite images show a suspected plume of material erupting two years apart from the same location on Jupiter's icy moon Europa. Observations from the Galileo spacecraft was used to corroborate the Hubble findings, to show that the region was unusually warm.

Jupiter's moon, Europa, also harbors a sub-surface ocean. A fleet of underwater drones is being tested in the oceans of the Earth, in preparation for the Europa clipper mission.

The newly imaged plume rises about 62 miles above Europa's surface, while the one observed in 2014 was estimated to be about 30 miles high.

At a press conference yesterday, NASA scientists fielded questions from viewers via Twitter, one of whom asked: are we talking about bacteria or algae - or giant squids.

Earth's hydrothermal vents are thriving with microbial life - leading scientists to believe that the icy ocean world could be habitable.

Vanessa Coleman