Monday, March 5, 2012

One of Saturn's moons contains oxygen

Oxygen is required for all animal life on Earth. Plants on the other hand, require carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. Therefore, the substance is of great interest for astronomers attempting to find extraterrestrial life. Discovery of oxygen provides clues, and increases the chances of us finding life outside Earth. NASA has discovered oxygen on a moon that orbits Saturn. While it is unable to harbour life in a form that is familiar for us, it is a promising find.

The moon in question is dubbed Dione, and it contains a small oxygen-filled atmosphere. Too small to be of any purpose, as with Earth's, but an atmosphere nonetheless. The oxygen was probably produced by a chemical process that split water into oxygen and hydrogen. The required energy is said to come from Saturn itself, in the form of charged particles. A similar process could be in play on Jupiter which, being a gas giant, is similar to Saturn. It is however not clear where the required water for this process comes from, but perhaps there is a source on Dione that is yet to be found.
The spacecraft that performed the measurements, also took the time to snap a picture.
Saturn possesses more moons, and it is already known that they contain icy surfaces, and perhaps even water in liquid form. It is another prerequisite for life as we know it, and therefore of great interest to future space missions. If we discover oxygen and water together on one planetary body, it greatly increases the chances of finding life. Finding oxygen on Dione means the other moons of Saturn, and even those of Jupiter, have suddenly become more interesting. Additionally, knowledge of the process by which the oxygen is created can help us with that.

NASA's findings support a theory that already claimed there should be oxygen on the moons of Saturn. It is a promising find for future research regarding the possibility of life elsewhere. Oxygen is one of the prerequisites, but water is also necessary. Life consists primarily out of water, and we need oxygen to create our fuel: it highlights why finding one of the two causes excitement among astronomers. When it comes to the search for extraterrestrial life, there may be more promising planets outside our solar system. NASA has already found several interesting planets that could theoretically harbour life, or otherwise provide clues as to where we might find it. It is likely that we will find more of these planets.

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