Washington: Saturn's icy moon Enceladus exhibits signs of life-supporting hydrothermal activity which may resemble that seen in the deep oceans on Earth, scientists say.
Hydrothermal activity occurs when seawater infiltrates and reacts with a rocky crust and emerges as a heated, mineral-laden solution, a natural occurrence in Earth's oceans.
"These findings add to the possibility that Enceladus, which contains a subsurface ocean and displays remarkable geologic activity, could contain environments suitable for living organisms," said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
A research paper, published in the journal Nature, describes microscopic grains of rock detected by NASA's Cassini spacecraft in the Saturn system.
An extensive, four-year analysis of data from the spacecraft, computer simulations and laboratory experiments led researchers to the conclusion the tiny grains most likely form when hot water containing dissolved minerals from the moon's rocky interior travels upward, coming into contact with cooler water.
"It's very exciting that we can use these tiny grains of rock, spewed into space by geysers, to tell us about conditions on - and beneath - the ocean floor of an icy moon," said the paper's lead author Sean Hsu, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Cassini's cosmic dust analyser (CDA) instrument repeatedly detected miniscule rock particles rich in silicon, even before Cassini entered Saturn's orbit in 2004.
By process of elimination, the CDA team concluded these particles must be grains of silica, which is found in sand and the mineral quartz on Earth.
The consistent size of the grains, the largest of which were 6 to 9 nanometres, was the clue that told the researchers a specific process likely was responsible.
"We methodically searched for alternate explanations for the nanosilica grains, but every new result pointed to a single, most likely origin," said co-author Frank Postberg, a Cassini CDA team scientist at Heidelberg University, Germany.
Hsu and Postberg worked closely with colleagues at the University of Tokyo who performed the detailed laboratory experiments that validated the hydrothermal activity hypothesis.
The researchers think these conditions may exist on the seafloor of Enceladus, where hot water from the interior meets the relatively cold water at the ocean bottom.
A second paper, published in journal Geophysical Research Letters, suggests hydrothermal activity as one of two likely sources of methane in the plume of gas and ice particles that erupts from the south polar region of Enceladus.
The finding is the result of extensive modelling to address why methane, as previously sampled by Cassini, is curiously abundant in the plume.