NASA announces 'big step forward' in finding life beyond Earth: Saturn's moon is our new best bet

NASA scientists announced new evidence suggesting that one of the ocean-bearing moons of Saturn has key elements to foster alien life beyond Earth and additional evidence to suggest that a moon orbiting Jupiter contains similar conditions hospitable to life.

According to papers published in the journal Science, the new data suggests a form of chemical energy that can feed organic life has been discovered on Saturn's moon Enceladus. Additionally, researchers revealed findings of new evidence suggesting plumes are erupting from Jupiter's moon Europa.

The discovery makes Enceladus the only place beyond Earth where scientists have found direct evidence of a possible energy source for life, according to the findings in the journal Science.

Enceladus "has nearly all of these ingredients for habitability," officials said of the discovery in a statement, making the moon the likely best bet for finding life beyond Earth.

Researchers cited the discovery of Ice plumes shooting into space from Enceladus containing hydrogen from hydrothermal vents. Scientists believe similar hydrothermal vents may have been the birthplace of life on Earth.

Check out images of the new discoveries:

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NASA provides insight into 'ocean worlds' in our solar system
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NASA provides insight into 'ocean worlds' in our solar system

This graphic illustrates how Cassini scientists think water interacts with rock at the bottom of the ocean of Saturn's icy moon Enceladus, producing hydrogen gas.

Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

These composite images show a suspected plume of material erupting two years apart from the same location on Jupiter's icy moon Europa. Both plumes, photographed in UV light by Hubble, were seen in silhouette as the moon passed in front of Jupiter.

Credits: NASA/ESA/STScI/USGS

The green oval highlights the plumes Hubble observed on Europa. The area also corresponds to a warm region on Europa's surface. The map is based on observations by the Galileo spacecraft.

Credits: NASA/ESA/STScI/USGS

This illustration shows Cassini diving through the Enceladus plume in 2015. New ocean world discoveries from Cassini and Hubble will help inform future exploration and the broader search for life beyond Earth.

Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA's Cassini spacecraft spied this tight trio of craters as it approached Saturn's icy moon Enceladus for a close flyby in this image captured Oct. 14, 2015. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY.
Saturn's ocean-bearing moon Enceladus taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Nov. 27, 2016. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY.
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Researchers cautioned that the evidence is more likely to suggest life at the scale of bacteria, rather than "giant squids."

NASA scientists hailed the new evidence as a "big step forward" toward establishing whether or not there is life beyond Earth. Scientists believe that oceans and water will be a key factor in fostering life beyond Earth.

Europa is one of the 67 moons that orbit Jupiter. Enceladus is the sixth largest moon orbiting Saturn. Both are hailed as "ocean worlds."

The Cassini spacecraft and the Hubble Space Telescope, which launched in 1990, both played key roles in the discovery.

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NASA's best photos of 2016
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NASA's best photos of 2016

Sunset From the International Space Station

Expedition 47 Flight Engineer Jeff Williams of NASA captured a series of photos for this composite image of the setting sun reflected by the ocean.

Photo Credit: NASA

Space Station Flight Over the Southern Tip of Italy

The southern tip of Italy is visible in this image taken by the Expedition 49 crew aboard the International Space Station on Sept. 17, 2016. The brightly lit city of Naples can be seen in the bottom section of the image. A Russian Soyuz spacecraft can be seen in the foreground.

Photo Credit: NASA

Star Trails Seen From Low Earth Orbit

Astronauts on the International Space Station captured a series of incredible star trail images on Oct. 3, 2016, as they orbited at 17,500 miles per hour. The station orbits the Earth every 90 minutes, and astronauts aboard see an average of 16 sunrises and sunsets every 24 hours.

Photo Credit: NASA

Many Fantastic Colors

The Nili Fossae region, located on the northwest rim of Isidis impact basin, is one of the most colorful regions of Mars. This region is ancient and has had a complicated geologic history, leading to interesting structures like layered bedrock, as well as other compositions.

Photo Credit: NASA

Wind Carved Rock on Mars

The distinctively fluted surface and elongated hills in this image in Medusae Fossae are caused by wind erosion of a soft fine-grained rock. Called yardangs, these features are aligned with the prevailing wind direction. This wind direction would have dominated for a very long time to carve these large-scale features into the exposed rock.

Photo Credit: NASA

Rains of Terror on Exoplanet HD 189733b

This Halloween, take a tour with NASA's Exoplanet Exploration site of some of the most terrifying destinations in our galaxy. The nightmare world of HD 189733 b is the killer you never see coming. To the human eye, this far-off planet looks bright blue. But any space traveler confusing it with the friendly skies of Earth would be badly mistaken.

Photo Credit: NASA

Aurora and Manicouagan Crater

An astronaut aboard the International Space Station adjusted the camera for night imaging and captured the green veils and curtains of an aurora that spanned thousands of kilometers over Quebec, Canada.

Photo Credit: NASA

Paris at Night

Around local midnight time on April 8, 2015, astronauts aboard the International Space Station took this photograph of Paris, often referred to as the “City of Light.” The pattern of the street grid dominates at night, providing a completely different set of visual features from those visible during the day.

Photo Credit: NASA

Stargazing From the International Space Station

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) see the world at night on every orbit — that’s 16 times each crew day. An astronaut took this broad, short-lens photograph of Earth’s night lights while looking out over the remote reaches of the central equatorial Pacific Ocean.

Photo Credit: NASA

Election Day 2016

Thanks to a bill passed by Texas legislators that put in place technical voting procedure for astronauts, they have the ability to vote from space through specially designed absentee ballots. To preserve the integrity of the secret vote, the ballot is encrypted and only accessible by the astronaut and the county clerk responsible for casting it.

Photo Credit: NASA

Fiery South Atlantic Sunset

An astronaut aboard the International Space Station photographed a sunset that looks like a vast sheet of flame. With Earth’s surface already in darkness, the setting sun, the cloud masses, and the sideways viewing angle make a powerful image of the kind that astronauts use to commemorate their flights.

Photo Credit: NASA

Ring Details on Display

This view from NASA's Cassini spacecraft showcases some of the amazingly detailed structure of Saturn's rings.

Photo Credit: NASA

Hubble Takes Flight with the Toucan and the Cluster

NGC 299 is an open star cluster located within the Small Magellanic Cloud just under 200,000 light-years away.

Photo Credit: NASA

Hubble Spies Spiral Galaxy

Spiral galaxy NGC 3274 is a relatively faint galaxy located over 20 million light-years away in the constellation of Leo (The Lion).

Photo Credit: NASA

Practicing Orion Spacecraft Recovery After Splashdown

A group of U.S. Navy divers, Air Force pararescuemen and Coast Guard rescue swimmers practice Orion underway recovery techniques in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory at NASA’s Johnson Space Center to prepare for the first test flight of an uncrewed Orion spacecraft with the agency’s Space Launch System rocket during Exploration Mission (EM-1).

Photo Credit: NASA

A Trio of Plumes in the South Sandwich Islands

On September 29, 2016, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this false-color image (MODIS bands 7-2-1) showing volcanic activity in the South Sandwich Islands. Located in the South Atlantic Ocean, the uninhabited South Sandwich Islands include several active stratovolcanoes.

Photo Credit: NASA

Infrared Echoes of a Black Hole Eating a Star

This illustration shows a glowing stream of material from a star, disrupted as it was being devoured by a supermassive black hole. The feeding black hole is surrounded by a ring of dust. This dust was previously illuminated by flares of high-energy radiation from the feeding black hole, and is now shown re-radiating some of that energy.

Photo Credit: NASA

Hubble Views a Colorful Demise of a Sun-like Star

This star is ending its life by casting off its outer layers of gas, which formed a cocoon around the star's remaining core.

Credit: NASA

Infrared Saturn Clouds

This false-color view from NASA's Cassini spacecraft shows clouds in Saturn's northern hemisphere. The view was made using images taken by Cassini's wide-angle camera on July 20, 2016, using a combination of spectral filters sensitive to infrared light at 750, 727 and 619 nanometers.

Photo credit: NASA

Moonset Viewed From the International Space Station

Expedition 47 Flight Engineer Tim Peake of ESA took this striking photograph of the moon from his vantage point aboard the International Space Station on March 28, 2016. Peake shared the image on March 30 and wrote to his social media followers, "I was looking for #Antarctica – hard to spot from our orbit. Settled for a moonset instead."

Photo credit: NASA

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(Reuters contributed to this report)

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