Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus is spitting up organic compounds that could be essential for the building blocks of life. NASA’s Cassini spacecraft discovered that in one of Saturn’s rings there were compounds of nitrogen and oxygen that came from the south pole of the planet’s sixth largest moon.
Because of hydrothermal activity, ice grains are ejected from plumes located on the moon’s south pole which formed one of Saturn’s outermost rings. These nitrogen and oxygen compounds are incredibly important, as they are used on Earth to create amino acids which are essential in the development of living organisms.
Nozair Khawaja, who is a geoscientist at the Free University of Berlin, along with his colleagues, studied the information that was gathered by the Cassini spacecraft. They analyzed the data collected from the “Cosmic Dust Analyzer” on the spacecraft which gathered mass spectrometer readings of the organic compositions that were discovered in the ice grains.
After the team of scientists found molecules floating on the surface of the moon’s ocean last year, they conducted more extensive research and found that the compounds were also dissolved in the water.
The compounds are believed to have been initially dissolved in the moon’s ocean prior to being evaporated from the surface of the water and ended up being condensed onto the ice grains. At that point, it is believed that erupting plumes on the moon threw the ice grains into space and that’s when they gathered in one of Saturn’s outermost rings. Saturn’s E-ring is approximately 186,000 miles wide and contains small water ice particles. While it is believed that some worlds contain liquid water oceans beneath their frozen surfaces, Enceladus is the only one that actually throws its water into space.
Dr. Khawaja explained, “If the conditions are right, these molecules coming from the deep ocean of Enceladus could be on the same reaction pathway as we see here on Earth,” adding, “We don’t know yet if amino acids are needed for life beyond Earth, but finding the molecules that form amino acids is an important piece of the puzzle.”
Frank Postberg, who is a planetary scientist and was also a co-author of the paper that was published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (which can be read in full here), weighed in by saying, “This work shows that Enceladus’ ocean has reactive building blocks in abundance, and it’s another green light in the investigation of the habitability of Enceladus.”
While at first glance, Enceladus wouldn’t seem as if anything could live on the moon, but with this new discovery of organic compounds, it is certainly a candidate for the possibility of alien life. This is definitely an interesting step forward in finding out if there could possibly be life beyond our planet.