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Saltwater geysers erupt from Enceladus' icy surface. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

Bacterial life could survive in the ocean beneath the surface of one of Saturn’s icy moons, according to new research published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.

Why it matters: The Saturnian moon Enceladus is considered one of the best possible places to look for life in our solar system — and our galaxy — so far. If we were to find life on Enceladus, it would also broaden the types of places we could search for life. Right now, we just look for Earth-like planets close enough to the sun to have liquid water.

The background: NASA’s spacecraft Cassini flew by Enceladus and spotted icy geysers erupting from the planet’s surface, indicating a liquid ocean beneath the ice sheets and possible hydrothermal activity. It flew through the geysers, and detected carbon, hydrogen, and crucially methane, in the plumes. That’s a big deal because certain types of bacterial life can produce methane.

What they did: Study author Simon Rittman ran a number of simulations to see if Methanermococcus okinawensi, a methane-producing microbe that lives on hydrothermal vents, could survive in an environment like on Enceladus. They altered the acidity and chemical composition of the environment, changed the pressure, and changed temperatures. Since no one knows exactly what the world is like beneath Enceladus’ ice sheets, they had to approximate.

What they found: The bacteria survived almost everything they threw at it, including low levels of formaldehyde, which were detected on the moon. But high levels killed the bacteria.

Yes, but the methane on Enceladus could have come from natural processes, and doesn’t need bacteria to be explained. It's also unknown if the hydrothermal vents Methanermococcus needs to survive are present on the planet — it’s just a guess.

Go deeper

Dave Lawler, author of World
2 hours ago - World

Venezuela's predictable elections herald an uncertain future

The watchful eyes of Hugo Chávez on an election poster in Caracas. Photo: Cristian Hernandez/AFP via Getty

Venezuelans will go to the polls on Sunday, Nicolás Maduro will complete his takeover of the last opposition-held body, and much of the world will refuse to recognize the results.

The big picture: The U.S. and dozens of other countries have backed an opposition boycott of the National Assembly elections on the grounds that — given Maduro's tactics (like tying jobs and welfare benefits to voting), track record, and control of the National Electoral Council — they will be neither free nor fair.

Biden plans to ask public to wear masks for first 100 days in office

Joe Biden. Photo: Mark Makela/Gettu Images

President-elect Joe Biden told CNN on Thursday that he plans to ask the American public to wear face masks for the first 100 days of his presidency.

The big picture: Biden also stated he has asked NIAID director Anthony Fauci to stay on in his current role, serve as a chief medical adviser and be part of his COVID-19 response team when he takes office early next year.