Saturn’s Moon Rhea May Have a Breathable Atmosphere

Saturn’s icy moon Rhea has an oxygen and carbon dioxide atmosphere that is very similar to Earth’s. Even better, the carbon dioxide suggests there’s life – and that possibly humans could breathe the air.

It seems oxygen is far more abundant than we ever suspected, particularly on moons that seem to be completely frozen solid. We recently found evidence of oxygen on Jupiter’s moons Europa and Ganymede, and now this finding on Europa. In fact, because the region of space surrounding Saturn’s rings has an oxygen atmosphere, it’s thought even more of the icy moons within the gas giant’s magnetosphere likely have little atmospheres of their own.

According to new data from the Cassini probe, the moon’s thin atmosphere is kept up by the constant chemical decomposition of ice water on the surface of Rhea. It’s likely that Saturn’s fierce magnetosphere is continually irradiating this ice water, which is what helps to maintain the atmosphere. Researchers suspect a lot of Rhea’s oxygen isn’t actually free right now, but is instead trapped inside Rhea’s frozen oceans.

While the presence oxygen is relatively easy to understand, the carbon dioxide is actually even more intriguing. The gas is likely created by reactions between organic molecules and oxidants down on the moon’s surface. That seems rather shockingly Earth-like, or at least like the Earth of a few billion years ago. This is just further proof that the building blocks and basic prerequisites of life exist all throughout the solar system, even if it was apparently only on Earth where conditions were good enough for it to actually lead very far.

[Science]

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16 Responses

  1. OlChuck says:

    Breathable? That’s a laugh. Did you know that a vacuum chamber also contains small amounts of oxygen, would you call that breathable. Any breath you tried to take on this moon would be more like a sputtering gasp followed by a quick death.

    • Mikeliker says:

      Yeah, but instead of carrying around a very limited air supply an astronaut can carry a small solar powered compressor with a battery backup in a Mark III or I-Suit.

      • russ says:

        I doubt a compressor would be effective at keeping up a breathable supply of air, much less a solar powered one considering how much farther away Saturn is from the sun.

    • Ellen says:

      How do you know? Have you been to the moon in question yet? Got any tips on a good campsite?

    • LukeH says:

      @OIChuck Yes because you are a genius and know the atmosphere of this moon that you probably just heard of for the first time better than scientists that have studied this stuff their whole life

  2. Eric says:

    Type-o “and now this finding on Europa. (Rhea)” Not trolling, just figured you’d want to fix that.

  3. Jaxtapose says:

    @OIChuck, there’s a difference between breathable and survivable. I mean, it’ not like the article suggested that we all go to Rhea for summer holidays.

  4. Justin says:

    “the carbon dioxide suggests there’s life”

    This is just completely false. Venus’s atmosphere is 97% carbon dioxide, and no one is suggesting that indicates life existed there to create it.

    • Brian says:

      Maybe it has to do with the ridiculously high pressure-cooker atmosphere on Venus.

      Still, I think it’s ridiculous to only consider planets with oxygen to be life-sustaining. Life as we know it may not be able to exist in a non-oxygen environment, but who’s to say that life can only exist in such an environment?

      • juan Quiceno says:

        they are just trying to say. that if there’s oxigen there is a high chance of life, since most life on this planet breathes it. it never says that there can’t be life on other planets with other atmospheres science just uses the reference of earth to define livable places in other planets.

    • Michael says:

      The article isn’t saying “carbon dioxide = life”, it’s saying that there is carbon dioxide, and the presence of this gas suggests to very smart people who know better than you that life may be the cause. The expectation given what we know of this moon (as opposed to Venus) is that oxygen makes sense, but CO2 does not necessarily. Therefore, since there is some CO2, it could be carbon-based organisms which created it.

  5. Rogerpenna says:

    According to the original NASA article that was copied and dumbed down by other sources, the atmosphere in Rhea is 5 TRILLION times less dense than on Earth. It means its even thinner than the atmosphere on the Moon. Guess what… for practical reasons, we say the Moon has NO atmosphere (vacuum), simply because its so thin that to a human, there is hardly any difference. (even in outer space there is no pure vacuum, as there are always some molecules around)

    Rhea´s atmosphere is even thinner than the Moon. BREATHABLE??? Maybe if you are a zombie! Who do not breath, of course.

  6. Doom says:

    “Breathable” in this context simply means the atmosphere is composed of stuff that humans breathe.
    As opposed to, say, sulfur tetraflouride which is NOT what humans can breathe.
    We may be ABLE to breathe the chemicals on Rhea, but we’d suffocate trying =P
    I rather smirk when writers play word games and stretch things to the absolute limit of absurdity….

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  1. January 24, 2011

    […] Saturn’s Moon Rhea May Have a Breathable Atmosphere – “Saturn’s icy moon Rhea has an oxygen and carbon dioxide atmosphere that is very similar to Earth’s. Even better, the carbon dioxide suggests there’s life – and that possibly humans could breathe the air….” […]

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