This Icy Moon Orbiting Saturn Is More Alive Than We Thought

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty

When NASA’s Cassini probe visited Saturn’s sixth moon Enceladus in 2005, its observations led to a surprising discovery.

The 310-mile-diameter icy moon is not just another cold rock. Active – a real chemistry laboratory in space. A salty ocean churning under its cold crust. Holes in the ice condensing along the moon’s south pole are pumping powerful chemical fumes hundreds of kilometers into space.

All this active chemistry has elevated Enceladus to the top of the list of planets and moons that may have the right conditions for simple life forms in the solar system. But some key ingredients for microbial evolution seemed to be missing. The most important of these was hydrogen cyanide, sometimes called prussic acid, which is highly flammable, highly toxic but also super useful as an ingredient in many industrial chemicals and pharmaceuticals here on Earth.

More than 15 years after Cassini reached Enceladus, a team of researchers from Caltech and Harvard took a closer look at the tons of data the probe had collected during its 10-year mission and concluded that the initial readings were wrong. Enceladus make Astrobiologists Jonah Peter and Kevin Hand and planetary scientists Tom Nordheim claimed to have hydrogen cyanide. And that bodes well for hopes that the icy moon is home to alien life.

Is This Icy Moon Our Best Chance to Find Alien Life?

“Our results indicate the existence of a rich, chemically diverse environment that could support complex organic synthesis and possibly even the origin of life,” wrote Peter, Hand and Nordheim in a new study published online. January 12. All three scientists are affiliated with Caltech and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Peter also works for Harvard.

The team’s findings may force scientists to prioritize Enceladus more as they intensify their search for alien life. It may even become a higher priority than Jupiter’s moon Europa, which has much in common with Mars, Venus, and even Enceladus and is a favorite target of alien hunters.

This does not mean that first contact is imminent. Right now, what scientists hope to confirm about Enceladus is clear. conditions for life, somewhere under the cold crust of the moon. Checking all these chemical and environmental boxes could justify new missions to the moon in the coming years.

And it is these probes that can find very simple life forms: bacteria or other microbes. “I find the possibility of microbial subterranean life high on Enceladus or Europa,” Avi Loeb, a Harvard physicist who was not involved in Cassini’s reanalysis, told The Daily Beast.

Loeb warned: “I doubt there are dead fish lying on the icy surface.”

Biologists generally agree that simple organisms as we understand them need certain combinations of certain components to thrive: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur, and phosphorus, for starters. And there must be sufficient volatility in the surrounding environment, mainly the elements that move and agitate, to provide energy for chemical reactions that mix, match and re-mix these elements until they produce something that can eat, metabolize, discharge, breathe, move. growth, reproduction, and response to external stimuli. This life.

There are important middle steps in this evolutionary process. And hydrogen cyanide (a compound of hydrogen, carbon, and ammonia with the chemical formula HCN) makes one of these steps possible. “With HCN, you can create biochemically important molecules like amino acids,” Dirk Schulze-Makuch, an astronomer at the Technical University of Berlin, told The Daily Beast. Amino acids, in turn, can form the proteins that living cells need to function and reproduce.

By examining data from Cassini’s first pass through Enceladus’ southern clouds, scientists quickly found signs of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, and sulfur. Feathers showed variability; therefore, among the essential components of life, the Moon was only missing a few things for evolution. Hydrogen cyanide or something like that was one of them.

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An image of Enceladus captured by NASA’s Cassini probe.

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An image of Enceladus captured by NASA’s Cassini probe.

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An image of Enceladus captured by NASA’s Cassini probe.

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

But the compound was there from the start; According to Peter, Hand and Nordheim, scientists did not realize this. “Identification of small species in feathers remains an ongoing challenge,” they wrote, using the term “species” to refer to their chemical species.

The problem is that Cassini’s Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer, a device that identifies chemicals by weighing their components, produces raw data that requires careful analysis. As our analytical techniques improve, scientists can only make new discoveries from old data. That’s exactly what happened when Peter, Hand, and Nordheim revisit the Enceladus files. “The authors were able to extract a little more from the dataset,” Frank Postberg, a planetary scientist at Freie Universität Berlin, told The Daily Beast.

It is still possible for Peter, Hand, and Nordheim’s findings to be erroneous in the context of peer review or follow-up investigation by different teams. And even they make Wait, we’re still a long way from confirming the evolutionary conditions on Enceladus.

NASA’s Cassini Mission What’s Next for Space Explorers?

First, we’re still missing something. “Phosphorus and sulfur are vital components for life as we know it,” Postberg said. “Phosphorus has not yet been detected on Enceladus, and sulfur is experimental only.”

Signs of phosphorus and clearer signs of sulfur may be hiding in old Cassini data, just like hydrogen cyanide. Her Moreover For more data, someone may need to send new and better probes to the moon. “We’ll probably need a new task with an instrument tuned for the detection of large organic molecules,” said Schulze-Makuch.

A mass spectrograph that includes a gas chromatograph (a device that burns chemicals to analyze) would be a useful feature in a new Enceladus probe, Schulze-Makuch said.

This hypothetical probe could confirm the presence or absence of essential components for evolution on the moon itself in Enceladus’ plumes. A follow-up mission can go looking for it later conclusion That evolution: tiny organisms that live, die, and reproduce in the subterranean sea of ​​Enceladus.

That would be an expensive undertaking. Cassini cost $3 billion, and that was about 20 years ago. Future missions to Enceladus could be even more expensive.

The work of Peter, Hand and Nordheim is an argument in favor of investment. Saturn’s sixth moon is looking better and better as the first place we can find alien life. However, the trio wrote that “further investigation of Enceladus’ ocean material” will “require future robotic missions.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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