Saturn’s Moon, Enceladus, Contains Never-Before-Seen Organic Compounds
At their closest point, the Earth and Saturn are 746 million miles away from each other. Despite the distance, researchers are interested in the possibility of life in the Saturn system.
Thanks to the European Space Administration and the Italian Space Agency, the Cassini probe was able to collect swaths of data on Saturn over a period of thirteen years. Although the Cassini mission ended in 2017, it’s left a lifetime’s worth of data for scientists to pore over.
The most recent finding from the Cassini mission has the scientific community talking: they’ve discovered the building blocks of amino acids on Saturn’s moon, Enceladus.
The Cassini Mission
The unprecedented Cassini mission broke many records and significantly boosted our understanding of Saturn. During its travels around Saturn, Cassini studied Titan (Saturn’s largest moon), the rings of Saturn, and the planet’s magnetosphere.
Using the Cosmic Dust Analyzer aboard Cassini, scientists were able to grab and analyze ice grains in the rings surrounding Saturn. Next, Cassini ran these ice grains through a spectrometer to test the compounds found within the ice grains.
The results were astounding: the ice grains contained water vapor, ice, salt, methane, and a host of organic compounds containing nitrogen and oxygen. This was of particular interest because it was the first time scientists detected soluble organic compounds on Enceladus.
To compound the enormity of the finding, the nitrogen- and oxygen-rich compounds were similar to those used to build amino acids on Earth. This has scientists wondering if Enceladus is hiding an oasis for life beneath its thick, icy crust.
Compounds Abound On Enceladus
Enceladus is the sixth largest of Saturn’s 53 named moons. Although it’s over 25 times smaller than Earth, Enceladus may hold the key to life beyond our own terrain.
Measuring 310 miles in diameter and covered by icy, tectonic terrain, Enceladus hides a massive subsurface ocean. Not only is there a subsurface ocean, but judging by Cassini’s data, this ocean is warm and packed with life-forming nutrients.
Within Enceladus’s ocean scientists have already identified 100 geysers—confirming the presence of hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, similar to those that we have on Earth.
But how did Cassini pull ice grains from the core of Enceladus in Saturn’s rings?
Nutrient-rich material flows from the core of Enceladus to its surface. From there, the material mixes with water in the subsurface ocean, where plumes cause the nutrients to burst onto the surface, forming ice crystals that eventually float through space to Saturn’s rings.
Could these vents allow for subsurface life to form without sunlight? It’s possible, but scientists are still unsure. We still need to prove that amino acids are necessary for life beyond Earth.
The Bottom Line
The nitrogen- and oxygen-rich compounds are promising, but not conclusive evidence of life beyond Earth. However, Cassini’s findings are still promising, suggesting that Enceladus’s massive subsurface ocean could harbor some form of life.
While scientists don’t plan to return to Enceladus soon, NASA’s Dragonfly Mission will soon set sail to study the origins of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Time will tell if Saturn holds the key to extraterrestrial life.