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PERSPECTIVES

PLANETARY SCIENCE

Detecting molecular hydrogen on Enceladus


Cassini spacecraft detects molecular hydrogen on one of Saturn’s moons

By Jeffrey S. Seewald previously observed carbonate species sug- H2 to form methane (CH4) by a process
gests a state of chemical disequilibria in the known as methanogenesis (6). Here lies

P
lanetary bodies with global oceans Enceladus ocean that represents a chemical the connection with Enceladus. By operat-
are prime targets in the search for life energy source capable of supporting life. ing the Cassini onboard mass spectrometer
beyond Earth owing to the essential Enceladus is a midsized (504-km diam- in open-source mode during a 2015 flyby of
role of liquid water in biochemical re- eter) satellite of Saturn that has an inferred Enceladus that intersected the vapor and
actions that sustain living organisms. rocky silicate core covered by an estimated particle plume, Waite et al. were able to
In addition to water, life requires en- 2- to 60-km layer of water ice (2–4). Evi- minimize analytical artifacts that had com-
ergy and a source of essential chemical ele- dence points to the existence of a global promised H2 measurements during previ-
ments (C, H, N, O, P, and S). Although there ocean (3, 5) that is likely maintained in a liq- ous flybys. The new approach allowed them
is compelling evidence for liquid water and uid state by heat generated during tidal de- to determine that the plume gas contained
many of the essential elements on several formation. The viability of life on planetary 0.4 to 1.4 volume % H2 along with 0.3 to
ice-covered planetary bodies in our solar bodies such as Enceladus can be assessed 0.8 volume % CO2, critical ingredients for
system and beyond, direct observation of through examination of biogeochemical methanogenesis.
energy sources capable of fueling life has, to processes on Earth. Sunlight-fueled photo- Reconstructing the composition of the
this point, remained elusive. On page 155 of synthesis is the primary source of energy at Enceladus ocean from the abundance of
this issue, Waite et al. (1) report that recent Earth’s surface, but is unlikely in the outer material in the plume is a difficult task be-
PHOTO: NASA/JPL/SPACE SCIENCE INSTITUTE

flybys of the ice-covered saturnian moon solar system where energy from the Sun is cause of unknown chemical fractionation
Enceladus by the Cassini spacecraft reveal limited, especially at depth in ice-covered associated with the freezing of saline ocean
the presence of molecular hydrogen (H2) oceans. In Earth’s oceans, however, there water in a vacuum as it is ejected through
in jets of vapor and particles ejected from are vast ecosystems where primary produc- cracks in the icy shell. By making the sim-
a liquid water ocean through cracks in the tion is sustained in the absence of sunlight plifying assumption that molal abundance
ice shell. The abundance of H2 along with by chemical energy available from aqueous ratios in the Enceladus ocean are preserved
fluids venting at the seafloor. Some of the in the plume, Waite et al. developed a geo-
most primitive metabolic pathways utilized chemical model that predicts a highly alka-
Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry Department, Woods
Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, MA 02543, USA. by microbes in these environments involve line (pH = 9 to 11) sub-ice ocean containing
Email: jseewald@whoi.edu the reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) with dissolved H2 and carbonate species in a

132 14 APRIL 2017 • VOL 356 ISSUE 6334 sciencemag.org SCIENCE

Published by AAAS
the context of Enceladus’ geochemical evo- ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE
lution, the importance of water-rock reac-
tions extends far beyond H2 generation. As
is the case on Earth, where circulation of
seawater through the oceanic lithosphere
An AI
regulates the chemistry of seawater, hydro-
thermal processing of Enceladus’ silicate stereotype
core has been postulated as a control on the
pH, salinity, and abundance of silica in the
Enceladus ocean (9–11).
catcher
Waite et al.’s results represent an impor- An artificial intelligence
tant advance in assessing the habitabil-
ity of Enceladus. Many questions remain, method identifies implicit
however, regarding geological processes
on Enceladus that lack Earth analogs. For
human biases such as
example, unlike Earth, where plate tecton- gender stereotypes
ics delivers magmatic heat and continu-
ously supplies unaltered ultramafic rocks By Anthony G. Greenwald

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to near-seafloor environments readily ac-

T
cessed by hydrothermal fluids, there is hose who converse regularly with
no a priori evidence for plate tectonics or their smartphones know that the lan-
magmatic activity on Enceladus. Sustained guage skills of computing devices have
H2 generation on Enceladus requires that emerged from a lengthy childhood. On
Mosaic image of particle and vapor plumes ejected hydrothermal fluids have access to organic- page 183 of this issue, Caliskan et al.
from the ice-covered surface near the south pole and ferrous-iron–bearing rocks in the unveil a new language achievement of
of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The image has been entire silicate core. What are the mecha- artificial intelligence (AI) (1). In large bodies
rotated 180° from its original orientation. nisms for the formation of permeability of English-language text, they decipher con-
and heat that allows the flow of aqueous tent corresponding to human attitudes (likes
fluids through the silicate core and back to and dislikes) and stereotypes. In addition to
state of chemical disequilibria. If correct, the ocean? The accumulation of H2 in the revealing a new comprehension skill for ma-
this observation has fundamental implica- Enceladus ocean is conspicuous in the con- chines, the work raises the specter that this
tions for the possibility of life on Encela- text of an Earth analog, where H2 delivered machine ability may become an instrument
dus; chemical disequilibrium that is known to oxygenated oceans from submarine hot of unintended discrimination based on gen-
to support microbial life in Earth’s deep springs is rapidly consumed by pervasive der, race, age, or ethnicity.
oceans is also available to support life in the microbial populations in seawater. Is the Caliskan et al. used a word-embedding
Enceladus ocean. presence of H2 in the Enceladus ocean an method implemented in Global Vectors for
The detection of H2 in Enceladus plumes indicator for the absence of life, or is it a Word Representation (GloVe) (2), an algo-
represents a window into processes regulat- reflection of the very different geochemical rithm that represents each word in a large
ing the composition of its ocean. Although environment and associated ecosystems on vocabulary (2.2 million words, each a dis-
numerous processes can produce H2 on Enceladus? We still have a long way to go tinct case-sensitive letter sequence) as a
Enceladus, Waite et al. present convincing in our understanding of processes regulat- vector of 300 semantic dimensions. These
arguments that point to water-rock reac- ing the exchange of mass and heat across dimensions are derived from word co-
tions in the silicate core as the most likely geological interfaces that define the inter- occurrence counts in a corpus of 840 billion
source. Thus, liquid water on Enceladus is nal structure of Enceladus and other ice- tokens (roughly, words) obtained from a
not only a requirement for life-sustaining covered planetary bodies. Future missions large-scale crawl of the web. GloVe’s imple-
biochemical processes, but may also be to explore oceans beyond Earth will answer mentation of co-occurrence is based on two
essential for geochemical processes re- many of these questions and further con- specific vocabulary words occurring within
sponsible for the production of H2. Indeed, strain the possibility of life elsewhere in 10 words of each other.
fluid flow and associated water-rock reac- our solar system. j Pennington et al. (2) previously estab-
tions are ubiquitous on Earth in a diverse lished GloVe’s usefulness in solving word
REFERENCES
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SCIENCE sciencemag.org 14 APRIL 2017 • VOL 356 ISSUE 6334 133


Published by AAAS
Detecting molecular hydrogen on Enceladus
Jeffrey S. Seewald (April 13, 2017)
Science 356 (6334), 132-133. [doi: 10.1126/science.aan0444]

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