Cassini Sniffs Organic Chemicals Leaking into Space from Saturn Moon, Enceladus

During a flyby of the small moon on March 12th, the Cassini probe detected significant amounts of organic chemicals as it flew through powerful geyser-like jets of ice blasting into space. This active moon appears to be generating organic chemicals much like the substances found in comets. As Cassini bravely travelled through the plume at a speed of 32,000 mph, it was able to take some indirect measurements of the density of the gas from the surprising amount of torque applied to spacecraft. Fortunately the craft was undamaged as the particles bounced off its bodywork…

Cassini took the daring journey through the plumes of ice crystals and gas at 200 km above the moon’s surface. It came within 50 km of the surface at closest approach, giving mission scientists an unprecedented view of the mysterious satellites northern hemisphere. Images acquired by Cassini showed a vast, ancient region of pits and craters mixed with cracks, with geysers fizzing chemicals into space. Enceladus is located in the densest region of Saturn’s E-ring, possibly indicating there is some relationship between the geyser emissions and ring density.

To discover significant quantities of organic compounds being emitted from the Saturn system is of particular interest to scientists trying to understand how Saturn evolved as the solar system formed.

A completely unexpected surprise is that the chemistry of Enceladus, what’s coming out from inside, resembles that of a comet, to have primordial material coming out from inside a Saturn moon raises many questions on the formation of the Saturn system.” – Hunter Waite, principal investigator for the Cassini Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer, Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio

Saturns rings and moons (credit: NASA)

From measurements by the Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer on Cassini, scientists are able to deduce that the moon is highly active, driven by an internal energy source. There is also evidence for tectonic activity on the 500 km diameter body. The gases detected can be likened to the fizz of gas released from carbonated water, with a twist of organic chemicals mixed in. The spectrometer effectively “tasted and sniffed” the gas and was able to get a good idea about what the energetic geysers are spewing into space.

The gases detected, over 20 times more dense than estimated, contained water vapour, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, organic compounds and volatile molecules. Quite an explosive mix. The clouds of gas were so dense that the spacecraft felt the force of the emission, creating a torque. From this, some measurements on gas density were possible.

It is thought Cassini was unharmed during the flyby and it will return in August for an even more daring, lower flyby of this strange, gassy moon.

Source: NASA

14 Replies to “Cassini Sniffs Organic Chemicals Leaking into Space from Saturn Moon, Enceladus”

  1. Primordial material within Enceladus is sooo promising – maybe it will lead to more funding for NASA (hope). It begs to question deeper exploration of our own moon, as in – lets get the heck back at lunar exploration.

  2. Maybe Cassini’s finding shouldn’t be all that suprising. I’ve often heard the mantra; “The Universe is homogenous – that is, everything is the same everywhere.” So why not the same for the moons of the outer solar system where these bodies formed under the same conditions?

  3. My predictions: Life on Titan is stromatolithic and has already been observed. The low mountain range is a huge, stromatolite reef. The chemistry is carbon based, but very different then on Earth. Most of the biochemical transformations will be of a free-radical nature, not ionic. I’ll accept my Nobel Prize, but it’ll probably be long after I’m gone.

  4. I’ll make a prediction right now. There is active life on Earth, Mars, Europa, Ganymede, Titan and Enceladas. And there was life on Venus.
    I base this on 1) The difficulty of eliminating life once it starts 2) The apparent multitude of places that meet or met the criteria for life forming: Liquid water, organic compounds and an energy source

  5. Cool down geek-heads. Yeah, I know, your gonna be talking about finding “life!”.

  6. Traveled with 30000 lengths of Madagascan’s lizard per second … Please use SI it’s a site talking about space science not farmer’s crops.

    Best wishes.

  7. Can’t wait for the next fly by, I hope our future spaccraft can bring some of the material back home like star dust

  8. Lol David,
    I love the enthusiasm as I would love to find out there is other life out there.
    That being said, just because there are organic chemicals firing from Enceladus and numerous other bodies doesn’t exactly make a prediction for life.

    I admit, as a race we have a very narrow minded view of the conditiongs for life, given we only have one model to base it off of (carbon based). However, with that being said, I would say the three most likely canidates would be Mars, Europa and Titan, specifically Titan as it has a diverse atmospheric system and planetary conditions.

  9. Anybody wanna take some bets? Organic material…….I bet there is life. What kind? I don’t have a clue. It appears all the mixes are there…Na, wait a minute. I don’t think there is life. Nope! Wait, yes there is…wait, no there isn’t. Somebody help me with this. Life…hmmmm no way, no how…..Can we ever know in the near future?

  10. I KNOW THIS IS NOT A QUESTION BUT I REALY NEED TO TALK TO SOME SCIENTISTS AND/OR ASTRONOMERS. THE REASON IS PRIVATE AND IS ONLY FOR SCIENTISTS AND ASTRONOMERS!!!!! thank you and if anybody (Astronomer/Scientist) reads this please email me and I will say and ask what I need, if you ARENT a REAL PROFESSIONAL Scientist or Astronomer don’t email me because I will find out this is ONLY FOR THE EYES OF PROFESSIONALS!

    my email is

    [email protected]

    again if you are a Scientist or Astronomer please email me. thank you for your time.

  11. Oyate Eagle Tail

    The scientific community is based around the freedom of information on a global scale. This means that scientists know no boundaries and information is shared freely.

    Additionally, many of the people that read these columns probably are scientists or know as much.

    Just ask your question; it’s unlikely you’ve thought of anything that hasn’t already been thought of by someone.

    Why not ask prof. Pamela Gay?

    Just send a mail to:
    Pamela mailto:[email protected]
    Fraiser mailto:[email protected]

    Hope this helps.

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