Saturn moon could support life, Cassini spacecraft findings show

Enceladus

Scientists think that the organic material is injected into the ocean by hydrothermal vents on the floor of Enceladus' ocean - something akin to the hydrothermal sites found at the bottom of the oceans on Earth, which are one of the possible environments that scientists investigate for the emergence of life on our own planet.

This discovery has excited the nerves of NASA scientists to prepare for another mission to Enceladus. Such large molecules can only be created by complex chemical processes including those related to life, ESA said.

Scientists described their analysis of the Cassini data this week in the journal Nature.

The tiny moon is ejecting organic molecules into space. "That's just an wonderful finding". JPL designed, developed and assembled the Cassini orbiter.

"It was kind of a needle in a haystack problem", he says.

The Cassini detected the multifaceted particles near the top of Enceladus' ocean. These molecules weigh in at about 15 atomic mass units.

Heavier organic molecules with more sophisticated compositions were discovered for the first time on Saturn's moon Enceladus.

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Previously, simple organic molecules detected on the little moon were under around 50 atomic mass units and only contained a handful of carbon atoms. "With complex organic molecules emanating from its liquid water ocean, this moon is the only body besides Earth known to simultaneously satisfy all of the basic requirements for life as we know it", the paper's co-author Dr Christopher Glein said.

Some of the molecules sensed by the CDA were so large that the instrument couldn't analyze them. Gas bubbles rising through the ocean collect organic material at their surface and transport them upward to the ice shell. So, it's possible that extraterrestrial life exists on this satellite of Saturn. "Now it seems that Enceladus has this too". But they do know it's rich in the ingredients for life. The graphic shows the icy crust, which is thinner in the polar regions, below which sits an ocean. "That's the question, with a capital Q", Lunine says.

"However, we observe the highest proportion of these complex organics in the young, inner E ring close to Enceladus, as compared to the old, outer E ring far away from Enceladus", Postberg said. Whether those reactions are completely independent of life and fueled simply by chemistry and geology, are part of a prebiotic mix from which life could one day emerge, are now building alien microbes, or are perhaps the waste products of extraterrestrial lifeforms already living in the Enceladian sea is still unknown.

An artist's conception of Enceladus' south pole, shooting out icy plumes.

Meanwhile, researchers here on Earth are continuing to observe and experiment on hydrothermal vents in the hopes of advancing our understanding of what life on Enceladus might look like. But NASA declined to fund the project. In short, the spacecraft wasn't sent with tools that could determine the presence of life.

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For now, Enceladus will have to wait.

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