Cassini image of Enceladus from Dec. 2010 (NASA/JPL/SSI)

“Snowing Microbes” On Saturn’s Moon?

28 Mar , 2012

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Enceladus, Saturn’s 318-mile-wide moon that’s become famous for its ice-spraying southern jets, is on astronomers’ short list of places in our own solar system where extraterrestrial life could be hiding — and NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is in just the right place to try and sniff it out.

On March 27, Cassini came within 46 miles (74 km) of Enceladus’ south pole, the region where the moon’s many active water-ice jets originate from. This was Cassini’s closest pass yet over the southern pole, allowing the spacecraft to use its ion and neutral mass spectrometer — as well as its plasma spectrometer, recently returned to service — to taste the icy spray emanating from deep fissures called “tiger stripes” that scar Enceladus’ surface.

(Fly along with Cassini toward Enceladus’ jets here.)

“More than 90 jets of all sizes near Enceladus’s south pole are spraying water vapor, icy particles, and organic compounds all over the place,” said Carolyn Porco, planetary scientist and Cassini Imaging science team leader. “Cassini has flown several times now through this spray and has tasted it. And we have found that aside from water and organic material, there is salt in the icy particles. The salinity is the same as that of Earth’s oceans.”

In addition to water, salt and organics, there is also a surprising amount of heat — heat generated in part by tidal friction, helping keep Enceladus’ underground water reserves liquid.

“If you add up all the heat, 16 gigawatts of thermal energy are coming out of those cracks,” Porco said.

This creates, in effect, a so-called “Goldilocks zone” of potential habitability orbiting around Saturn… a zone that Cassini has easy access to.

“It’s erupting out into space where we can sample it. It sounds crazy but it could be snowing microbes on the surface of this little world,” Porco said. “In the end, it’s the most promising place I know of for an astrobiology search. We don’t even need to go scratching around on the surface. We can fly through the plume and sample it. Or we can land on the surface, look up and stick our tongues out. And voilà…we have what we came for.”

Cassini's view down into a jetting "tiger stripe" in August 2010

Cassini’s latest results — and images! — from the flyby should be landing on Earth any time now. Stay tuned to Universe Today for more updates on Cassini and Enceladus.

Read more on NASA Science News here.

Image credits: NASA/JPL/SSI.

UPDATE: For images from Cassini’s flyby, showing closeups of Enceladus as well as Dione and Janus, check out the CICLOPS team page here.

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M Peter Selman
Guest
March 28, 2012 8:12 AM

Enceladus appears to be an interesting alternative for the search for life than Europa. It spews internal material into space, so there would be no ‘immediate need’ to land, drill down to a sub-surface ocean, and deploy an autonomous submarine to investigate.

A relatively slow moving Enceladus orbiter could collect fresh geyser particles and examine in-situ for any signs of life. A more ambitious mission, with an aerogel wafer similar to Star Dust, could fly through the ice-jets, collect samples, and return to Earth. Budget allowing, however.

postman1
Member
postman1
March 29, 2012 1:58 AM

It’s that “return to Earth” part that makes me hesitate. Visions of ‘War of the Worlds’ are the reason.

Lawrence B. Crowell
Member
Lawrence B. Crowell
March 29, 2012 1:00 PM

I think it is more like “The Andromeda Strain.” If we do return samples from Enceladus they will have to be absolutely quarantined and sent back in a return capsule that can’t rupture. If there are organisms inside Enceladus their release into our environment could pose unexpected consequences.

LC

postman1
Member
postman1
March 29, 2012 4:57 PM

And then, the return craft itself will have passed through the plume, so the exterior of the craft could also be contaminated. I think instead, we should use a robotic lab to capture and test samples, then drop into Saturn. I hate to sound paranoid, but….

TheDirtBoy
Guest
TheDirtBoy
March 29, 2012 10:07 PM

Some times there is just no substitute for human hands. Why not, instead of returning the samples to earth, we could do all our testing on the ISS? Worst case, the station and all it’s crew have to be quarantined, way better than a pandemic.

postman1
Member
postman1
March 29, 2012 10:54 PM

I would agree mostly, but I think ‘worst case’ would be a dead crew and ISS unusable.

TheDirtBoy
Guest
TheDirtBoy
March 30, 2012 2:17 AM

And even with that in mind, there would most likely be no shortage of eager volunteers willing to participate in possibly the greatest discovery in all of human existence.

postman1
Member
postman1
March 30, 2012 4:08 PM

You are right. I would even consider it myself.

M Peter Selman
Guest
March 31, 2012 5:20 AM

A return craft could be captured and docked to an external laboratory on the station.

Lawrence B. Crowell
Member
Lawrence B. Crowell
March 29, 2012 1:25 PM
I too have written about something of this sort. A Saturn probe could be sent in the future which has multiple functions. There could be a core spacecraft that is a smaller version of Cassini, with three small craft that detach. One part passes through Encladus’ geysers and continues on its orbit back to Earth. A second part with the RGU is inserted into a low orbit around Saturn. This part has a Gravity-B type of gyroscope system to test for Lense-Thirring frame dragging in a bigger gravity field. It could also have sensors for observing the atmosphere up close. A third part lands on Titan, with maybe a balloon or similar craft for exploration. The Jovian moons… Read more »
Ivan3man_At_Large
Member
Ivan3man_At_Large
March 29, 2012 3:50 PM

However, I agree that we are not going to send a large robotic drilling operation there.

How about sending Bruce Willis & Co. instead? wink

Ivan3man_At_Large
Member
Ivan3man_At_Large
March 29, 2012 3:50 PM

However, I agree that we are not going to send a large robotic drilling operation there.

How about sending Bruce Willis & Co. instead? wink

M Peter Selman
Guest
March 31, 2012 6:00 AM
The most feasible sample return mission, indeed, could be a single flyby through the plumes before swinging around Saturn for a gravity assist back to Earth orbit. Carrying a considerable amount of fuel to enter orbit and departure would be unnecessary. Unfortunately, it would be a very fast flyby, so I read from a study; one that would vaporize any organics upon aerogell impact. So a decade years later, when opening the canister, all we may see are hollow craters and clean tubes. So we are left with a few options. We could slow down enough to orbit Enceladus with an on-board laboratory. Any unfortunate microbes being ejected (hopefully) could be captured in aerogell with little damage, and… Read more »
Lawrence B. Crowell
Member
Lawrence B. Crowell
March 31, 2012 1:55 PM
Your statement here is similar to what I would propose initially. The spacecraft would have a capsule that separates from the rest of the spacecraft. The capsule makes only a minimal delta-vee adjustment through the Saturnian system. This capsule opens up and presents aerogels to the geyser plumes, and then after the flyby it closes up. Ideally the orbit would be a near Hohman transfer orbit which connects or kisses the orbit of Earth and Saturn, so its return flight would require near zero delta-vee adjustment. Depending on the anomaly angle or time of the mission there of course might realistically be some course adjustment or gravity assistance from Jupiter or other planets to bring it back to… Read more »
Earthling4
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Earthling4
March 28, 2012 8:55 AM
I would be dumbfounded if there were no microbes in the spray and these and more complex life forms in the waters of Enceladus, given the Goldilocks conditions for life there, after the 4.5-billion-year existence of our shared solar system. To my self-critical, common-sense cognitive instincts and citizen-scientific rational mind, indigenous life is present, with certainty, in the waters and water beds of Enceladus. Let us examine it with caution and utter respect as well as honor wholly it independence and liberty permanently. If we do not desist with our historically rivalrous and clashing, often mutual, supremacist crusades and campaigns, they will eventuate in us in meeting our match not only on Earth but possibly unexpectedly extraterrestrially, to… Read more »
squidgeny
Member
squidgeny
March 28, 2012 12:10 PM

Too little is known about abiogenesis to give life on Europa or Enceladus (or Mars for that matter) any probability… so I prefer to treat it like Russel’s Teapot – until there’s evidence of it, it doesn’t exist.

Earthling4
Guest
Earthling4
March 30, 2012 1:08 AM
The sum of all of the considerable scientific research from the investigation of the incidence and distribution of life on Earth has conclusively determined unanimously that life occurs in virtually any and every environment with the very least conditions to support its existence, including at fiery thermal vents in the oceans, in no-light marine and subterranean locations, in the harshest (even chemically) and most desolate hot and cold deserts and low-oxygen mountain elevations, ad infinitum. That is, the overall finding is that life is tremendously (indeed, incredibly) hardy and adaptive and fills and occupies, in some form, any environment, however generally inhospitable to life, in which it can survive or to which it can adapt and survive. Logically,… Read more »
squidgeny
Member
squidgeny
March 30, 2012 11:26 AM
It’s certainly true that life on earth exists in a very wide variety of environments, and I’m sure some of the environments (if not many of them) exist on other worlds, including those in our own system. But life can only exist in a place after first coming into existence, and the environmental conditions for that are currently not well understood. Life exists on Earth in frigid conditions but most scientists will agree that it never originated in them. A delicious piece of agar jelly in an oxygen-filled jar would be very conducive to life, but unless it’s conducive to abiogenesis it will sit there, uninhabited, for the lifetime of the universe. Other worlds could be similar. Europa… Read more »
Earthling4
Guest
Earthling4
March 30, 2012 11:11 PM
Conceptually your conclusion is right, but empirically, when we test for the presence of life in “natural” habitats compatible with life as we know it, like we can easily and probably will do with Enceladus, it may turn out that, as it has so far, wherever we check for life in natural environments that are supportive of or conducive to life, it is always, or generally, the case that life is present in those natural environments in some form. We know one important thing about the etiology or genesis of everything, including the quantum particle microcosmos, celestial nebulae, stars, planets, solar systems, black holes, galaxies, biology and the macrocosm (the universe): they are the products of evolution (inclusive… Read more »
Peter
Member
Peter
March 28, 2012 3:07 PM

Based on all available evidence, a “self-critical, common-sense, cognitive instincts and citizen-scientific rational mind” does not come out with statements like “indigenous life is present, with certainty” nor does it come out with odd ramblings about liberty and squalid subjugation. Sorry brother, but you’re a couple sandwiches short of a picnic.

Earthling4
Guest
Earthling4
March 30, 2012 9:39 PM
We will have science with a moral compass or science without a moral compass and the resulting social, political and environmental impacts of whichever we chose between these two options. Science and scientists are not above moral consciousness and conscience, as there have been psychopathy and grievous irresponsibility in science and among scientists and perpetrated by these in the past to date. Rather moral consciousness and conscience must be an ever-present integral part of science work and the work of scientists and engineers. They contribute significantly to all-around, universal good human relations and diplomacy as well as such harmony. Physics greats Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer spoke out on the necessity of moral consciousness and conscience… Read more »
Peter
Member
Peter
March 30, 2012 10:10 PM

Thanks for the diatribe E4. Well repeated. Elevator keeps getting stuck at the 8th floor eh?

Zoutsteen
Member
Zoutsteen
March 28, 2012 1:17 PM

So .. IF … there are microbes on/in Enceladus, they would have had spaceflight eons ago?

Peter
Member
Peter
March 28, 2012 3:10 PM

Yeah, instead of spectroscopy or chemical analysis, I want to see some of this water under a dam microscope!
Let’s see these bugs for what they are and finally, we’ll know what aliens really look like…if indeed, there are any at all.

Sam
Guest
Sam
March 28, 2012 11:23 PM

unintelligent single celled life is possible, like amoebas eating viruses from plentiful organics that evolved into bacteria. algae perhaps could grow on solid surface rocks, but surely not any multicellular beings on such a desolate moon. If life there evolved on its own, and didn’t arise from outer space contaminents, then earth life is threatened by these alien bugs. Perhaps one strain wins out on a planet, much like either gram negative or gram positive bacteria, and this dictates all life and evolution on a planet such as earth.
[URL Deleted – Promotion of personal blog not permitted.]

Sam
Guest
Sam
March 28, 2012 11:23 PM

unintelligent single celled life is possible, like amoebas eating viruses from plentiful organics that evolved into bacteria. algae perhaps could grow on solid surface rocks, but surely not any multicellular beings on such a desolate moon. If life there evolved on its own, and didn’t arise from outer space contaminents, then earth life is threatened by these alien bugs. Perhaps one strain wins out on a planet, much like either gram negative or gram positive bacteria, and this dictates all life and evolution on a planet such as earth.
[URL Deleted – Promotion of personal blog not permitted.]

Rogerounielo Rounielo França
Guest
March 29, 2012 3:48 AM
To: Human Beings on Planet Earth Brothers In Cosmic Consciousness Unified, Brazil and the World, PARTE 111.1 – DESCRIPTION “THE URANTIA BOOK – Revealing the Mysteries Of God, The Universe, Jesus, and Ourselves”. Index of The Urantia Book Link http://rounielo.blogspot.com.br/2012/03/parte-1111-description-urantia-book.html PARTE 111.2 – The Parts of THE URANTIA BOOK – Revealing the Mysteries Of God, The Universe, Jesus, and Ourselves”. Link http://www.rounielo.blogspot.com.br/2012/03/parte-1112-parts-of-urantia-book.html PARTE 111.3 – The Parts of THE URANTIA BOOK – Revealing the Mysteries Of God, The Universe, Jesus, and Ourselves”. Foreword. Deity and Divinity. Deity functions on personal, prepersonal, and superpersonal levels. Total Deity is functional on the following seven levels: 1. Static- self-contained and self-existent Deity. 2. Potential — self-willed and self-purposive Deity. 3. Associative… Read more »
Ledzpln
Guest
Ledzpln
March 29, 2012 8:10 AM

Why am I reading this nonsense?

cramarc
Guest
cramarc
March 29, 2012 11:00 AM

Why isn’t this in the spam folder where it belongs?

David Krauss
Guest
David Krauss
March 29, 2012 6:33 AM

Sounds like it’s too early to rule out that a round trip to space is part of a microbe reproductive cycle, and the tiger stripes themselves could be living colonies.

Alanator
Member
Alanator
March 29, 2012 10:59 PM

Is there not allot of radiation in this region around Saturn, if so would that not have an impact on possibility of life on one of it`s moons ?

Jason Kurant
Guest
Jason Kurant
March 30, 2012 8:57 PM

I tend to think it is unnecessary to protect the earth from contamination from other planets. There is surely material transfer between Earth and Mars, as we know of meteorites that have made it from Mars to Earth. Maybe some day we will find a chunk of Earth on Mars! But since there is this exchange, I think we can be sure that any life from Mars would not kill life on Earth, or it already would have done so.

Kemp Woods
Member
Kemp Woods
April 2, 2012 2:50 AM
I believe the best bets for finding life in our solar system are to be found on Jupiter and Saturn—in their atmospheres and oceans. And please don’t tell me they have no oceans–I’ve researched the P/T phase diagrams to find that even for pure hydrogen scientists are not anywhere near sure of the phases, let alone the complex phases and compositions of planets such as these. And the quantity of water out there must be enormous–do you really think it’s all been converted to steam or converted to boiling metallic hydrogen? Ridiculous. That these misnamed “gas giants” are devoid of life is preposterous. Wake up people and use your logic and imagination—how could such huge, complex, and colorful… Read more »
Savino
Guest
Savino
April 2, 2012 3:18 PM

The question is: There´s water long enough in Enceladus to create and sustain life? It´s a 500km ball… there isn´t water to fill the atlantic ocean.
My guess? We are living at the exact time where´s the ice in enceladus finally became water and started to flow. It will be over in a few million years!

(just a guess ppl, just a guess)

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