Cassini Probe Detected Building Blocks of Life on Saturn’s Moon Enceladus
Scientists are busily working on a framework for assessing exoplanets for the presence of life, but what about extraterrestrial life a little closer to home? There are a few moons in the solar system that could conceivably support life. After analyzing data collected in the final days of the Cassini mission. The study is based on off data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft – before Cassini plunged into Saturn’s atmosphere and ended its mission on Sept. 15, 2017.
Before NASA destroyed its Cassini spacecraft in the clouds of Saturn, the space agency flew the robot through geysers of ice that shoot out of the planet’s moon Enceladus. The plumes come from a giant saltwater ocean hidden beneath the moon’s icy crust. They’ve found all sorts of eyebrow-raising chemistry, including small organic (carbon-containing) molecules such as acetylene, formaldehyde, methane, and propane.
As we know, life is carbon-based. The atom makes it possible to store and copy genetic information, is essential to building proteins, and helps store and shuttle energy. Water in liquid form is an essential ingredient, too, so when scientists find the two together in space, the stakes become interesting. Cassini was launched in 1997 at a total cost of $3.9 billion and spent 13 years circling, studying and taking data of Saturn and its moons, including Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.
Cassini detected complex organic molecules in the water of Enceladus, which could mean something is alive down there. Carbon-based chemistry doesn’t mean life on Enceladus is a sure thing, but it is a necessary precursor to the development of life. The new discovery makes this the only location in the solar system other than Earth with all the basic requirements for life.
Researcher, Nozair Khawaja said, “We found large molecular fragments that show structures typical for very complex organic molecules,” and further added, “These huge molecules contain a complex network often built from hundreds of atoms of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and likely nitrogen that form ring-shaped and chain-like substructures.” The study findings were published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature.
Searching for solid evidence of living organisms on Enceladus will prove quite difficult. We don’t yet know what it would take to break through the surface into the watery depths, or whether that’s even possible. Still, Enceladus might be the best place to go looking for extraterrestrial life.