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Enceladus is a tiny, icy moon located in a region of the outer solar system where no liquid water was expected to exist because of its large distance from the sun,” he said. “This finding is therefore a crucial new piece of evidence showing that environmental conditions favorable to the emergence of life may be sustainable on icy bodies orbiting gas giant planets.”
Saturn's icy moon Enceladus is emerging as the most habitable spot beyond Earth in the Solar System for life as we know it, scientists said last week at a meeting of the Enceladus Focus Group at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California.
It has liquid water, organic carbon, nitrogen [in the form of ammonia], and an energy source," says Chris McKay, an astrobiologist at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. Besides Earth, he says, "there is no other environment in the Solar System
Acetylene-eating microorganisms on Earth convert the molecule into ethanol and acetate. Their biochemistry is much simpler than that of methanogens, suggesting that acetylene might be the food of choice for the most primitive organisms.
But acetylene, methane, ethanol and acetate aren't biomarkers. What's needed, Oremland and McKay agree, is to examine the ratios of carbon's two stable isotopes: carbon-12 and carbon-13.
The probe, called ENDURANCE (Environmentally Non-Disturbing Under-ice Robotic Antarctic Explorer) is the NASA-funded brainchild of William Stone, president of Stone Aerospace Corporation in Austin, Texas.
Its purpose is to use sonar to map, navigate, and explore unknown, dark environments, beginning in Antarctica, but possibly someday extending into space. NASA's involvement stems from a program that helps develop methods for exploring remote environments.