Scientists have used mass spectrometry data from NASA's Cassini spacecraft to uncover new details about Saturn's moon, Enceladus. The data indicates that the moon has all the ingredients for sustaining life - notwithstanding its -200°C average surface temperature.
The study, conducted by Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), found that large, carbon-rich organic molecules are ejected from cracks in the icy surface of the planet's moon.
According to the data, this is caused by chemical reactions between the moon's rocky core and warm water from its subsurface ocean, which link these complex molecules.
"We are, yet again, blown away by Enceladus. Previously we'd only identified the simplest organic molecules containing a few carbon atoms, but even that was very intriguing," said SwRI's space scientist, Dr. Christopher Glein, who specialises in extra-terrestrial chemical oceanography.
This moon is the only body besides Earth known to simultaneously satisfy all of the basic requirements for life as we know it
"Now we've found organic molecules with masses above 200 atomic mass units. That's over ten times heavier than methane. 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 findings also have great significance for the next generation of exploration, Glein said, adding that a future spacecraft could fly through the plume of Enceladus, and analyse those complex organic molecules using a high-resolution mass spectrometer to help scientists determine how they were made.
"We must be cautious, but it is exciting to ponder that this finding indicates that the biological synthesis of organic molecules on Enceladus is possible," he added.
Prior to its deorbit in September of 2017, Cassini sampled the plume of material emerging from the subsurface of Enceladus. The Cosmic Dust Analyzer (CDA) and the SwRI-led Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS) made measurements both within the plume and Saturn's E-ring, which is formed by plume ice grains escaping Enceladus' gravity.
"Even after its end, the Cassini spacecraft continues to teach us about the potential of Enceladus to advance the field of astrobiology in an ocean world," Glein said. "This paper demonstrates the value of teamwork in planetary science."
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