Scientists have found a potential food source for microbes on one of Saturn's tiny moons—and that could dramatically increase the chance of finding life beyond Earth, CBC reports. In a research paper published Thursday in Science, NASA reveals its Cassini spacecraft discovered molecular hydrogen in the plumes of vapor that erupt into space from the huge ocean sitting below Enceladus' layer of ice. The plumes themselves are evidence of hydrothermal vents in Enceladus' ocean. On Earth, microbial life thrives near such vents and feeds on molecular hydrogen. On Enceladus, Saturn's sixth largest moon, that molecular hydrogen would be formed by reactions between hot water and rock, Space.com reports.
Hunter Waite, lead author of the paper, says the discovery has them "very excited," and NASA's director of planetary science tells the New York Times there's a "tremendous opportunity" to "see if there's life" on Enceladus, which is now believed to have all the components need for life, including organics, water, and an energy source. Astronomers believe similar conditions also exist on Europa, one of Jupiter's moons. This discovery is just the latest made by the spacecraft Cassini, which will end its two-decade mission in September when it destroys itself by plunging into Saturn. (NASA recently found seven Earth-sized planets.)