Scientists have long been captivated by the possibility of discovering evidence for extraterrestrial life in the universe. While many of the world’s largest telescopes are pointed toward distant galaxies and star systems, however, some think there’s a strong possibility that life could be detected much closer to home. In a new collaboration with a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Professor Nagissa Mahmoudi of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences is investigating potential biosignatures on two of our solar system’s moons: Europa, orbiting Jupiter, and Enceladus, orbiting Saturn.
Despite thick layers of solid ice and dramatically low surface temperatures, scientists think that, under the surface, these water worlds could possess the right conditions to support microbial life. It’s an unexpected avenue of research for Mahmoudi, a geomicrobiologist who studies how microbes interact with organic compounds in deep-sea environments on Earth. “The study of organic molecules in our oceans has revealed chemically stable compounds dating back thousands of years, thanks to microbial processes,” she explained. “Our hunch is that if there is life under the icy surfaces of these ocean moons, we may be able to detect it in the form of microbial byproducts.”