Linking Organic Molecules to Hydrothermal Vents on Enceladus

Saturn's moon Enceladus isn't just bright and beautiful. It has an ocean under all that ice that could have hydrothermal vents that create organic chemicals. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, JPL, SSI, Cassini Imaging Team

Despite the vast distance between us and Saturn’s gleaming moon Enceladus, the icy ocean moon is a prime target in our search for life. It vents water vapour and large organic molecules into space through fissures in its icy shell, which is relatively thin compared to other icy ocean moons like Jupiter’s Europa. Though still out of reach, scientific access to its ocean is not as challenging as on Europa, which has a much thicker ice shell.

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Toxic Gas is Leaking out of Enceladus. It’s also a Building Block of Life.

The Cassini spacecraft captured this image of cryovolcanic plumes erupting from Enceladus' ice-capped ocean. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/CalTech

Enceladus’ status as a target in the search for life keeps rising. We’ve known for years that plumes erupting from the ocean under the moon’s icy shell contain important organic compounds related to life. Now, researchers have found another chemical in the plumes which is not only highly toxic but also critical in the appearance of life.

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Fly Slowly Through Enceladus' Plumes to Detect Life

The plumes of Enceladus have phosphate-rich ice grains entrained. Credit: NASA
A NASA illustrations of Cassini flying through the plumes of Enceladus. Credit: NASA.

Enceladus is blasting water into space from the jets at its southern pole. This makes it the ideal place to send a dedicated mission, flying the spacecraft through the plumes with life-detection instruments s. A new study suggests that a spacecraft must proceed carefully through the plumes, keeping its speed below 4.2 km/second (2,236 miles per hour). Using a specialized, custom-built aerosol impact spectrometer at these speeds will allow fragile amino acids to be captured by the spacecraft’s sample collector. Any faster, they’ll shatter, providing inclusive results.

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JWST Spies a Gigantic Water Plume at Enceladus

Images from the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) show a water vapour plume jetting from the south pole of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, extending out 40 times the size of the moon itself. The inset, an image from the Cassini orbiter, emphasises how small Enceladus appears in the JWST image compared to the water plume. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, G. Villanueva (NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center), A. Pagan (STScI).

The James Webb Space Telescope has observed a huge water vapor plume emanating from Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Astronomers say the plume reaches nearly 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles) into space, which is about the equivalent distance as going from Ireland to Japan. This is the largest plume ever detected at Enceladus.

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We Now Understand Why Enceladus has ‘Tiger Stripe’ Cracks at its Southern Pole

The "tiger stripes" of Enceladus - - as pictured by the Cassini space probe. Credit: NASA/JPL/ESA

One of the biggest surprises of the 13-year Cassini mission came in Enceladus, a tiny moon with active geysers at its south pole. At only about 504 kilometers (313 miles) in diameter, the bright and ice-covered Enceladus should be too small and too far from the Sun to be active. Instead, this little moon is one of the most geologically dynamic objects in the Solar System.

A new study has modeled how this activity could be taking place, and what mechanism might power the geysers spewing from ‘tiger stripe’ fissures. While previous studies have indicated some type of unknown internal heat source on Enceladus, the new study infers no heat source would be necessary.

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Cassini Saw Methane in Enceladus’ Plumes. Scientists Don’t Know How it Could be There Without Life

Icy water vapor geysers erupting from fissures on Enceladus. Credit: NASA/JPL

Even though the Cassini mission at Saturn ended nearly four years ago, data from the spacecraft still keeps scientists busy. And the latest research using Cassini’s wealth of data might be the most enticing yet.

Researchers say they’ve detected methane in the plumes of Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus. The process for how the methane is produced is not known at this time, but the study suggests that the surprisingly large amount of methane found are likely coming from activity at hydrothermal vents present on Enceladus’s interior seafloor. These vents could be very similar those found in Earth’s oceans, where microorganisms live, feed on the energy from the vents and produce methane in a process called methanogenesis.

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Animation Shows how Saturn’s Rings Move at Different Speeds

Saturn's F ring is extremely narrow compared to the historic A, B and C rings. It measure just a few hundred kilometers across. Credit: NASA/Cassini

Saturn’s rings are one of the most recognized and revered celestial objects known to the human race. From a distance, they look like a disk of layered crystal or multicolored disks within disks that wrap around Saturn’s hazy umber face. When viewed up close, we see that these rings are actually particles of water ice (from microns to icebergs), as well as silicates, carbon dioxide, and ammonia.

We would also noticed that the rings have some interesting orbital mechanics. In fact, each ring has a different orbit that is the result of its proximity to Saturn (i.e., the closer they are, the faster they orbit). To illustrate what this complex system look like, NASA Fellow Dr. James O’Donoghue created a stunning animation that shows how each of Saturn’s major ring segments (A-Ring to F-Ring) orbit together around the planet.

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Titan’s Atmosphere Recreated in an Earth Laboratory

A global mosaic of the surface of Titan, thanks to the infrared eyes of the Cassini spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Nantes/University of Arizona
A global mosaic of the surface of Titan, thanks to the infrared eyes of the Cassini spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Nantes/University of Arizona

Beyond Earth, the general scientific consensus is that the best place to search for evidence of extraterrestrial life is Mars. However, it is by no means the only place. Aside from the many extrasolar planets that have been designated as “potentially-habitable,” there are plenty of other candidates right here in our Solar System. These include the many icy satellites that are thought to have interior oceans that could harbor life.

Among them is Titan, Saturn’s largest moon that has all kinds of organic chemistry taking place between its atmosphere and surface. For some time, scientists have suspected that the study of Titan’s atmosphere could yield vital clues to the early stages of the evolution of life on Earth. Thanks to new research led by tech-giant IBM, a team of researchers has managed to recreate atmospheric conditions on Titan in a laboratory.

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Simulation Helps Explain Saturn’s Mysterious Hexagon

The smaller storms on Saturn interact with the larger system and as a result effectively pinch the eastern jet and confine it to the top of the planet. The pinching process warps the stream into a hexagon. Credit: Jeremy Bloxham and Rakesh K. Yadav

A new study of the mysterious hexagon-shaped storm at Saturn’s north pole suggests this phenomenon is actually the result of activity occurring across the entire planet.

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