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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Enceladus has All the Raw Materials for Life

Saturn's moon Enceladus isn't just bright and beautiful. It has an ocean under all that ice that has chemicals necessary for life. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, JPL, SSI, Cassini Imaging Team

Saturn’s ocean moon, Enceladus, is attracting increasing attention in the search for life in our Solar System. Most of what we know about Enceladus and its ice-covered ocean comes from the Cassini mission. Cassini ended its exploration of the Saturn system in 2017, but scientists are still working through its data.

New research based on Cassini data strengthens the idea that Enceladus has the chemicals necessary for life.

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Europa and Enceladus are the Perfect Targets for a Lightsail Mission

Saturn's moon Enceladus isn't just bright and beautiful. It has an ocean under all that ice that has chemicals necessary for life. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, JPL, SSI, Cassini Imaging Team

There’s always a need for new technologies or for novel uses of existing technologies to lower the cost of space exploration and extend our reach. Lightsails are a novel type of spacecraft that could eventually be our first visitors to nearby stars like the Alpha Centauri system. But they could be put to productive use right here in our Solar System.

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An Element Critical for (Earth) Life is Spewing out of Enceladus

Saturn's moon Enceladus sprays its salty sea out into space. Those plumes are rich in phosphates. (NASA/JPL/SSI/J. Major)

We really need to get back to Enceladus. Not to send people necessarily, although that would be nice. But, we need to get some more robotic missions out there. This moon is one of the most intriguing places in the solar system. Not only has it got oceans under that icy crust, but it’s spewing salty water out to space. Plus, that water seems to be rich in phosphates, which contain phosphorus, which is a building block of life.

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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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NASA Tests a Robotic Snake That Could Explore Other Worlds

A snake-like robot called EELS is tested at a ski resort in Southern California to determine how well it can traverse across snowy environments. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech.

Rovers have enabled some amazing explorations of other worlds like the Moon and Mars. However, rovers are limited by the terrain they can reach. To explore inaccessible terrain, NASA is testing a versatile snake-like robot that could crawl up steep slopes, slither across ice, and even slide into lava tubes. Called Exobiology Extant Life Surveyor (or EELS), this robot could cross different terrains and create a 3D map of its surrounding to autonomously pick its course, avoiding hazards to reach its destination.

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Not Just Water. Enceladus is Also Blasting Silica Into Space

A false-colour image of the plumes erupting from Enceladus. Image Credit: NASA/ESA
A false-colour image of the plumes erupting from Enceladus. Image Credit: NASA/ESA

Deep beneath the icy surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, something’s happening that causes particles of icy silica to spew out to space. They eventually end up in Saturn’s E ring. Planetary scientists knew that this was happening, but didn’t have a good explanation for why or how. Now, they do.

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How Could We Detect Life Inside Enceladus?

Scientists recently determined that a certain strain of Earth bacteria could thrive under conditions found on Enceladus. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

For astrobiologists, the scientists dedicated to the search for life beyond Earth, the moons of Saturn are a virtual treasure trove of possibilities. Enceladus is especially compelling because of the active plumes of water emanating from its southern polar region. Not only are these vents thought to be connected directly to an ocean beneath the moon’s icy surface, but the Cassini mission detected traces of organic molecules and other chemicals associated with biological processes. Like Europa, Ganymede, and other “Ocean Worlds,” astrobiologists think this could indicate hydrothermal activity at the core-mantle boundary.

Both NASA and the ESA are hoping to send missions to Enceladus that could study its plumes in more detail. These include the Enceladus Orbitlander recommended in the Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey 2023-2032 and the ESA’s Enceladus Moonraker, which could depart Earth in the next decade, taking advantage of a favorable alignment between the planets. In anticipation of what these missions could find, an international team of researchers used data from the Cassini mission to establish how samples of plume material could constrain how much biomass Enceladus has within it.

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ESA is Considering a Mission to Enceladus

There are plenty of exciting places in the solar system to explore. But few are more interesting than Saturn’s moon Enceladus. It’s one of the only planetary bodies known to have all six necessary components of Earth-based life. It has an active ocean and most likely hydrothermal vents, similar to those on Earth, where some species exist entirely separately from any solar-powered biosphere. All of this makes it one of the most likely candidates for life in the solar system – and the center of much astrobiological attention. Now a team from a variety of European countries and the US has proposed a mission to the moon that could profoundly impact our understanding of our place in the universe – if the European Space Agency (ESA) funds it.

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