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One Step Closer to Life in Space – Astrobiology in The Cottage of Vienna

Jan 12, 2018

 

When NASA’s Cassini Mission ended on 15 September 2017 last year, it was not only my birthday, but also the day when the Spacecraft steered through the rings of Saturn to finally plunge into the planet. Overall the space mission has provided us with more than 450-thousand images of Saturn and its moon Enceladus.

This data has changed the way we think about the  possibility of life beyond Earth.

Another potential World, it could be habitable for life, perhaps not like we know it, but perhaps completely different than ours” said Cassini Program Manager, Earl Maize, in an interview with NBC Television back then.

Here at the Vienna University Observatory we are proud of astrobiology Phd-candidate MSc. Ruth Taubner, a scientist, who ventured out in search of  proof of this statement and returned with a huge success story, which she presented at the Institute of Astrophysics in a public speech today.

 

In her joint research of the Institute of Astrophysics with the Institute of Ecogenomics and System Biology of the University of Vienna, she was able to simulate the chemical environment prevalent in the plume of Enceladus that is venting from the geysers of its South Pole region.

The photo below shows the surface of Enceladus and the so called “Tiger Stripes”, four long bands of geysers, discovered by scientists in 2014 after analysing the data sent back to Earth by Cassini orbiter at Saturn. 

Image credit: NASA, Link: Watch new discoveries about ocean worlds in our solar system. http://wapo.st/2pyGcoF

When it was finally announced that the Enceladus plume contains molecular hydrogen, which is an evidence for hydrothermal processes, Taubner says she was overjoyed. This was the moment she had been waiting for, the starting signal for her experiments in Austria.

According to the deep sea biologist Peter Girguis, “For a microbiologist thinking about energy for microbes, hydrogen is like the gold coin of energy currency,” “If you had to have one thing, one chemical compound, coming out of a vent that would lead you to think there’s energy to support microbial life, hydrogen is at the top of that list.” (source)

The glass flask Taubner finally filled with the liquid chemical cocktail that simulates the situation inside the plume of Enceladus, appeared to change its color from transparent to muddy brown in the mock environment of Saturn´s moon Enceladus, thus suggesting the presence of microbial life, that could eventually trigger life – A huge success of Taubner’s research project, that will soon make its way around the World media.

 

 

FACTS & Figures:

Enceladus is the sixth largest moon of the planet Saturn and it is covered with a clean and fresh ice crust. It was discovered on August 28, 1789, by William Herschel. It is named after the ancient Greek Giant Enceladus (Ἐγκέλαδος Enkélados), son of Earth and Sky, who is deemed responsible for the eruptions of Mount Etna in Sicily, under which he is said to be buried. (Wikipedia)

Athena (left) fighting Enceladus (inscribed retrograde) on an Attic red-figure dish, c. 550–500 BC (Louvre CA3662)

 

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