File photo: 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
Complex organic molecules detected for the first time the coming from the depths of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, a new study, published.
Spacecraft scheduled to launch may soon discover what this new discovery says about the chances of life in the icy moons like Enceladus, the study of the researchers said.
The sixth largest of the moons of Saturn, Enceladus is only 314 miles (505 km) in diameter. This makes the moon’s small enough to fit within the boundaries of Arizona. [Photos of Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus]
In 2005, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft discovered plumes of water vapour and ice particles erupting from Enceladus, showing the existence of a giant ocean hidden beneath the moon’s frozen shell. Because there is life virtually wherever there is water on Earth, these findings suggested that life may also exist on Enceladus.
Previously, scientists had discovered only simple organic (carbon-based) compounds, each less than five carbon atoms in size, in the plumes of Enceladus. Now, researchers have discovered that complex organic molecules on the moon, including some of at least 15 carbon atoms in size.
“This is the first detection of complex organic substances from an alien water world,” study lead author Frank Postberg, a planetary scientist at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, told Space.com.
The scientists analysed data that Cassini collected flew within a plumefrom Enceladus, as well as when the probe passed through Saturn’s E ring, which is made of ice grains spewed out of Enceladus. The researchers discovered ice grains are loaded with complex organic material in both the plume and E-ring.
The researchers suspected that these organic materials were prepared in the hot, rocky and fragmented core of Enceladus, which prior to the work presented had water seeping through the pores.
“The organic and then be injected, along with the hot water in the overlying cooler ocean through hydrothermal vents,” Postberg said. “Then they can be transported to the ocean surface on the walls of the rising bubbles of gas.”
Postberg noted that most of the organic load of ice grains, the researchers saw in Saturn’s E ring. This would suggest that these complex organic molecules were not produced within Enceladus, but instead a result of sunlight causing chemical reactions in the space.
“But we take the largest share of these complex organic substances, in the young, inner E ring close to Enceladus, compared with the old, outer E ring far from Enceladus,” Postberg said. “In addition, we also see the complex organic substances directly in the plume.”
The researchers cautioned that these new findings are not conclusive evidence for life, as biological reactions are not the only potential sources of complex organic molecules. The next logical step is to go back to Enceladus quickly “and see if there is extraterrestrial life,” Postberg said. “Nowhere else can a potentially habitable alien ocean habitat as easily be explored by a space mission, such as in the case of Enceladus.”
Postberg added that the European Space Agency already has missions, Europa Clipper and JUICE, scheduled to launch in 2022, which passed the Europa, and Ganymede, the icy moons of Jupiter that have underground oceans. These missions will monitor for habitability on these worlds.
The scientists detailed their findings online June 27 in the journal Nature.
Original article on Space.com.