Heavier complex organic molecules are discovered coming from Saturn's moon Enceladus for the first time. This suggests that conditions in the moon are suitable for life.
In 2015, NASA's Cassini mission discovered a global ocean lying beneath the icy crust of Enceladus. This massive liquid water reservoir is spraying small droplets of water vapor, ice particles, and simple organic molecules such as the light methane and ethane gasses. The Cassini spacecraft was expelled from the orbit in September 2017 but was able to acquire samples of the plume material coming from the ocean surface of Enceladus.
Now, new data acquired from Cassini revealed that this global ocean is also spewing water with heavier and much complex organic molecules.
Heavier And Complex Organic Molecules
Methane and ethane contain one or two atoms and a dash of hydrogen. These molecules weigh in at about 15 atomic mass units.
The newly discovered molecules are comprised of heavier atoms that weigh as much as 200 atomic mass units that is most likely 10 times heavier than methane. They are also made up of between seven and 15 carbon atoms, a handful of hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen.
Molecules of such complicated composition are rare even on Earth. Hence, the presence of these complex ingredients, along with liquid water, and most especially being produced by a hydrothermal activity, could only strengthen the hypothesis that the ocean world in Enceladus offers a habitable condition for other forms of life.
Hydrothermal Vents On Saturn's Moon Enceladus
The Cassini detected the multifaceted particles near the top of Enceladus' ocean. The team of scientists who discovered the particles deduced that these materials rose on the ocean surface and in cracks of vents initially as a thin film originating beneath the icy shells. The thin film floated alongside the bubbles of gas being pushed from the depth of the oceans.
These bubbles of gas are produced by powerful hydrothermal vents from the moon's massive subsurface ocean and are released into space in the form of water vapor and ice grains — a form that later on becomes observable for the team of scientists led by Frank Postberg and Nozair Khawaja from the University Of Heidelberg.
The study, published in the journal Nature on June 27, stated that the conditions where the heavy organic material was found — slotted it into the ocean by hydrothermal vents on the surface of Enceladus' ocean — is similar with the conditions where scientists explored life forms on Earth.
"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," said Dr. Christopher Glein, a coauthor of the study and a space scientist specializing in extraterrestrial chemical oceanography.
Glein clarified, however, that the study has yet to confirm whether there is an actual life form in Saturn's moon Enceladus. The next step will be identifying how these molecules were made and what process had formed them.
Nevertheless, he said their findings are a significant contribution to future space missions, particularly in designing future space technologies.