New Cassini findings suggest Saturn moon could support life

Katie Ramirez
June 30, 2018

Data from NASA's Cassini spacecraft reveal complex organic molecules originating from Saturn's icy moon Enceladus, strengthening the idea that this ocean world hosts conditions suitable for life.

Saturn's rings cast shadows on the planet's cloud tops, providing a ideal backdrop for the brilliant sphere of Saturn's moon Enceladus.

Previously, Cassini spacecraft had identified similar organic molecules at Enceladus but those were much smaller and comparatively common. They believe that the molecules are caused by chemical reactions between Enceladus' rocky core and the ocean's warm water. As Glein noted in the news release, future space missions could provide more in-depth analysis of Encledaus's plumes, perhaps helping scientists figure out exactly how the moon's complex molecules came to be and what sort of biological processes are happening beneath its icy surface.

The data comes from the now destroyed Cassini spacecraft, which orbited the icy moon.

Postberg and his colleagues think it's likely that newly formed heavy organics rise to the top of the moon's buried ocean and end up floating in a layer near areas where water erupts from fissures at the south pole.

"Complex organic molecules do not necessarily provide a habitable environment, but on the other hand they are a necessary precursor for life,"Dr Frank Postberg from the University of Heidelberg - who led the research - told the Independent". Scientists analyzed the data from the global spacecraft and published their findings on 27 June in the journal Nature.

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FILE PHOTO: A woman looks through a spectroscope underneath a full-size engineering model of NASA's Cassini spacecraft that plunged into Saturn's atmosphere, at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, California, U.S., September 15, 2017.

Postberg and his colleagues propose that the organic molecules generated in Enceladus's ocean's depths eventually float to the surface, where they form a thin film just beneath the planet's icy crust.

"We are, yet again, blown away by Enceladus", study co-author Christopher Glein, a Southwest Research Institute space scientist specializing in extraterrestrial chemical oceanography, said in a statement.

This news came shortly after NASA's announces that "ingredients for life" have been discovered on Mars, this discovery is far the best evidence for aliens accepted by scientists.

"Once you have identified a potential food source for microbes, the next question to ask is 'what is the nature of the complex organics in the ocean?'" says SwRI's Dr. Hunter Waite, INMS principal investigator and paper coauthor. There may well be huge polymers - many-segmented molecules such as those that make up DNA and proteins - still waiting to be discovered. It also regularly ejects plumes of water and ice particles from its ocean through hydrothermal vents.

Cable is deputy project scientist for a concept called Enceladus Life Finder, which would use more advanced instruments than the ones on Cassini to sample the plume during a series of flybys. This was a sign that the body contained a subsurface ocean that could potentially harbor life.

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