The joint NASA/ESA Cassini-Huygens mission revealed some amazing things about Saturn and its system of moons. In the thirteen years that it spent studying the system – before it plunged into Saturn’s atmosphere on September 15th, 2017 – it delivered the most compelling evidence to date of extra-terrestrial life. And years later, scientists are still poring over the data it gathered.
For instance, a team of German scientists recently examined data gathered by the Cassini orbiter around Enceladus’ southern polar region, where plume activity regularly sends jets of icy particles into space. What they found was evidence of organic signatures that could be the building blocks for amino acids, the very thing that life is made of! This latest evidence shows that life really could exist beneath Enceladus’ icy crust.
Radar evidence shows that geysers on Enceladus are ejecting water that turns to snow. The snow not only falls back on Enceladus’ surface, but also makes its way to its neighboring moons, Mimas and Tethys, making them more reflective. Researchers are calling this a ‘snow cannon.’
As soon as the Cassini-Huygens mission arrived the Saturn system in 2004, it began to send back a number of startling discoveries. One of the biggest was the discovery of plume activity around the southern polar region of Saturn’s moon Enceladus’, which appears to be the result of geothermal activity and an ocean in the moon’s interior. This naturally gave rise to a debate about whether or not this interior ocean could support life.
Since then, multiple studies have been conducted to get a better idea of just how likely it is that life exists inside Enceladus. The latest comes from the University of Washington’s Department of Earth and Space Sciences (ESS), which shows that concentrations of carbon dioxide, hydrogen and methane in Enceladus’ interior ocean (as well as its pH levels) are more conducive to life than previously thought.
We can’t seem to get enough of Saturn. It’s the most visually distinct object in our Solar System (other than the Sun, of course, but it’s kind of hard to gaze at). The Cassini mission to Saturn wrapped up about a year ago, and since then we’re relying on the venerable Hubble telescope to satisfy our appetite for images of the ringed planet.
Since the 1970s, when the Voyager probes captured images of Europa’s icy surface, scientists have suspected that life could exist in interior oceans of moons in the outer Solar System. Since then, other evidence has emerged that has bolstered this theory, ranging from icy plumes on Europa and Enceladus, interior models of hydrothermal activity, and even the groundbreaking discovery of complex organic molecules in Enceladus’ plumes.
However, in some locations in the outer Solar System, conditions are very cold and water is only able to exist in liquid form because of the presence of toxic antifreeze chemicals. However, according to a new study by an international team of researchers, it is possible that bacteria could survive in these briny environments. This is good news for those hoping to find evidence of life in extreme environments of the Solar System.
Basically, on bodies like Ceres, Callisto, Triton, and Pluto – which are either far from the Sun or do not have interior heating mechanisms – interior oceans are believed to exist because of the presence of certain chemicals and salts (such as ammonia). These “antifreeze” compounds ensure that their oceans have lower freezing points, but create an environment that would be too cold and toxic to life as we know it.
For the sake of their study, the team sought to determine if microbes could indeed survive in these environments by conducting tests with Planococcus halocryophilus, a bacteria found in the Arctic permafrost. They then subjected this bacteria to solutions of sodium, magnesium and calcium chloride as well as perchlorate, a chemical compound that was found by the Phoenix lander on Mars.
They then subjected the solutions to temperatures ranging from +25°C to -30°C through multiple freeze and thaw cycles. What they found was that the bacteria’s survival rates depended on the solution and temperatures involved. For instance, bacteria suspended in chloride-containing (saline) samples had better chances of survival compared to those in perchlorate-containing samples – though survival rates increased the more the temperatures were lowered.
For instance, the team found that bacteria in a sodium chloride (NaCl) solution died within two weeks at room temperature. But when temperatures were lowered to 4 °C (39 °F), survivability began to increase and almost all the bacteria survived by the time temperatures reached -15 °C (5 °F). Meanwhile, bacteria in the magnesium and calcium-chloride solutions had high survival rates at –30 °C (-22 °F).
The results also varied for the three saline solvents depending on the temperature. Bacteria in calcium chloride (CaCl2) had significantly lower survival rates than those in sodium chloride (NaCl) and magnesium chloride (MgCl2)between 4 and 25 °C (39 and 77 °F), but lower temperatures boosted survival in all three. The survival rates in perchlorate solution were far lower than in other solutions.
However, this was generally in solutions where perchlorate constituted 50% of the mass of the total solution (which was necessary for the water to remain liquid at lower temperatures), which would be significantly toxic. At concentrations of 10%, bacteria was still able to grow. This is semi-good news for Mars, where the soil contains less than one weight percent of perchlorate.
However, Heinz also pointed out that salt concentrations in soil are different than those in a solution. Still, this could be still be good news where Mars is concerned, since temperatures and precipitation levels there are very similar to parts of Earth – the Atacama Desert and parts of Antarctica. The fact that bacteria have can survive such environments on Earth indicates they could survive on Mars too.
In general, the research indicated that colder temperatures boost microbial survivability, but this depends on the type of microbe and the composition of the chemical solution. As Heinz told Astrobiology Magazine:
“[A]ll reactions, including those that kill cells, are slower at lower temperatures, but bacterial survivability didn’t increase much at lower temperatures in the perchlorate solution, whereas lower temperatures in calcium chloride solutions yielded a marked increase in survivability.”
The team also found that bacteria did better in saltier solutions when it came to freezing and thawing cycles. In the end, the results indicate that survivability all comes down to a careful balance. Whereas lower concentrations of chemical salts meant that bacteria could survive and even grow, the temperatures at which water would remain in a liquid state would be reduced. It also indicated that salty solutions improve bacteria survival rates when it comes to freezing and thawing cycles.
Of course, the team emphasized that just because bacteria can subsist in certain conditions doesn’t mean they will thrive there. AsTheresa Fisher, a PhD student at Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and a co-author on the study, explained:
“Survival versus growth is a really important distinction, but life still manages to surprise us. Some bacteria can not only survive in low temperatures, but require them to metabolize and thrive. We should try to be unbiased in assuming what’s necessary for an organism to thrive, not just survive.”
As such, Heinz and his colleagues are currently working on another study to determine how different concentrations of salts across different temperatures affect bacterial propagation. In the meantime, this study and other like it are able to provide some unique insight into the possibilities for extraterrestrial life by placing constraints on the kinds of conditions that they can survive and grow in.
These studies also allow help when it comes to the search for extraterrestrial life, since knowing where life can exist allows us to focus our search efforts. In the coming years, missions to Europa, Enceladus, Titan and other locations in the Solar System will be looking for biosignatures that indicate the presence of life on or within these bodies. Knowing that life can survive in cold, briny environments opens up additional possibilities.
The Cassini orbiter revealed many fascinating things about the Saturn system before its mission ended in September of 2017. In addition to revealing much about Saturn’s rings and the surface and atmosphere of Titan (Saturn’s largest moon), it was also responsible for the discovery of water plumes coming from Enceladus‘ southern polar region. The discovery of these plumes triggered a widespread debate about the possible existence of life in the moon’s interior.
This was based in part on evidence that the plumes extended all the way to the moon’s core/mantle boundary and contained elements essential to life. Thanks to a new study led by researchers from of the University of Heidelberg, Germany, it has now been confirmed that the plumes contain complex organic molecules. This is the first time that complex organics have been detected on a body other than Earth, and bolsters the case for the moon supporting life.
The existence of a liquid water ocean in Enceladus’ interior has been the subject of scientific debate since 2005, when Cassini first observed plumes containing water vapor spewing from the moon’s south polar surface through cracks in the surface (nicknamed “Tiger Stripes”). According to measurements made by the Cassini-Huygens probe, these emissions are composed mostly of water vapor and contain molecular nitrogen, carbon dioxide, methane and other hydrocarbons.
The combined analysis of imaging, mass spectrometry, and magnetospheric data also indicated that the observed southern polar plumes emanate from pressurized subsurface chambers. This was confirmed by the Cassini mission in 2014 when the probe conducted gravity measurements that indicated the existence of a south polar subsurface ocean of liquid water with a thickness of around 10 km.
Shortly before the probe plunged into Saturn’s atmosphere, the probe also obtained data that indicated that the interior ocean has existed for some time. Thanks to previous readings that indicated the presence of hydrothermal activity in the interior and simulations that modeled the interior, scientists concluded that if the core were porous enough, this activity could have provided enough heat to maintain an interior ocean for billions of years.
However, all the previous studies of Cassini data were only able to identify simple organic compounds in the plume material, with molecular masses mostly below 50 atomic mass units. For the sake of their study, the team observed evidence of complex macromolecular organic material in the plumes’ icy grains that had masses above 200 atomic mass units.
This constitutes the first-ever detection of complex organics on an extraterrestrial body. As Dr. Khawaja explained in a recent ESA press release:
“We found large molecular fragments that show structures typical for very complex organic molecules. These huge molecules contain a complex network often built from hundreds of atoms of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and likely nitrogen that form ring-shaped and chain-like substructures.”
The molecules that were detected were the result of the ejected ice grains hitting the dust-analyzing instrument aboard Cassini at speeds of about 30,000 km/hour. However, the team believes that these were mere fragments of larger molecules contained beneath Enceladus’ icy surface. As they state in their study, the data suggests that there is a thin organic-rich film on top of the ocean.
These large molecules would be the result of by complex chemical processes, which could be those related to life. Alternately, they may be derived from primordial material similar to what has been found in some meteorites or (as the team suspects) that is generated by hydrothermal activity. As Dr. Postberg explained:
“In my opinion the fragments we found are of hydrothermal origin, having been processed inside the hydrothermally active core of Enceladus: in the high pressures and warm temperatures we expect there, it is possible that complex organic molecules can arise.”
As noted, recent simulations have shown the moon could be generating enough heat through hydrothermal activity for its interior ocean to have existed for billions of years. This study follows up on that scenario by showing how organic material could be injected into the ocean by hydrothermal vents. This is similar to what happens on Earth, a process that scientists believe may have played a vital role in the origins of life on our planet.
On Earth, organic substances are able to accumulate on the walls of rising air bubbles created by hydrothermal vents, which then rise to the surface and are dispersed by sea spray and the bubbles bursting. Scientists believe a similar process is happening on Enceladus, where bubbles of gas rising through the ocean could be bringing organic materiel up from the core-mantle boundary to the icy surface.
When these bubbles burst at the surface, it helps disperse some of the organics which then become part of the salty spray coming through the tiger cracks. This spray then freezes into icy particles as it reaches space, sending organic material and ice throughout the Saturn System, where it has now been detected. If this study is correct, then another fundamental ingredient for life is present in Enceladus’ interior, making the case for life there that much stronger.
This is just the latest in a long-line of discoveries made by Cassini, many of which point to the potential existence of life on or in some of Saturn’s moons. In addition to confirming the first organic molecules in an “ocean world” of our Solar System, Cassini also found compelling evidence of a rich probiotic environment and organic chemistry on Titan.
In the future, multiple missions are expected to return to these moons to gather more evidence of potential life, picking up where the venerable Cassini left off. So long Cassini, and thanks for blazing a trail!
For decades, scientists have believed that there could be life beneath the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. Since that time, multiple lines of evidence have emerged that suggest that it is not alone. Indeed, within the Solar System, there are many “ocean worlds” that could potentially host life, including Ceres, Ganymede, Enceladus, Titan, Dione, Triton, and maybe even Pluto.
But what if the elements for life as we know it are not abundant enough on these worlds? In a new study, two researchers from the Harvard Smithsonian Center of Astrophysics (CfA) sought to determine if there could in fact be a scarcity of bioessential elements on ocean worlds. Their conclusions could have wide-ranging implications for the existence of life in the Solar System and beyond, not to mention our ability to study it.
In previous studies, questions on the habitability of moons and other planets have tended to focus on the existence of water. This has been true when it comes to the study of planets and moons within the Solar System, and especially true when it comes the study of extra-solar planets. When they have found new exoplanets, astronomers have paid close attention to whether or not the planet in question orbits within its star’s habitable zone.
This is key to determining whether or not the planet can support liquid water on its surface. In addition, astronomers have attempted to obtain spectra from around rocky exoplanets to determine if water loss is taking place from its atmosphere, as evidenced by the presence of hydrogen gas. Meanwhile, other studies have attempted to determine the presence of energy sources, since this is also essential to life as we know it.
In contrast, Dr. Lingam and Prof. Loeb considered how the existence of life on ocean planets could be dependent on the availability of limiting nutrients (LN). For some time, there has been considerable debate as to which nutrients would be essential to extra-terrestrial life, since these elements could vary from place to place and over timescales. As Lingam told Universe Today via email:
“The mostly commonly accepted list of elements necessary for life as we know it comprises of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen and sulphur. In addition, certain trace metals (e.g. iron and molybdenum) may also be valuable for life as we know it, but the list of bioessential trace metals is subject to a higher degree of uncertainty and variability.”
For their purposes, Dr. Lingam and Prof. Loeb created a model using Earth’s oceans to determine how the sources and sinks – i.e. the factors that add or deplete LN elements into oceans, respectively – could be similar to those on ocean worlds. On Earth, the sources of these nutrients include fluvial (from rivers), atmospheric and glacial sources, with energy being provided by sunlight.
Of these nutrients, they determined that the most important would be phosphorus, and examined how abundant this and other elements could be on ocean worlds, where conditions as vastly different. As Dr. Lingam explained, it is reasonable to assume that on these worlds, the potential existence of life would also come down to a balance between the net inflow (sources) and net outflow (sinks).
“If the sinks are much more dominant than the sources, it could indicate that the elements would be depleted relatively quickly. In other to estimate the magnitudes of the sources and sinks, we drew upon our knowledge of the Earth and coupled it with other basic parameters of these ocean worlds such as the pH of the ocean, the size of the world, etc. known from observations/theoretical models.”
While atmospheric sources would not be available to interior oceans, Dr. Lingam and Prof. Loeb considered the contribution played by hydrothermal vents. Already, there is abundant evidence that these exist on Europa, Enceladus, and other ocean worlds. They also considered abiotic sources, which consist of minerals leached from rocks by rain on Earth, but would consist of the weathering of rocks by these moons’ interior oceans.
Ultimately, what they found was that, unlike water and energy, limiting nutrients might be in limited supply when it comes to ocean worlds in our Solar System:
“We found that, as per the assumptions in our model, phosphorus, which is one of the bioessential elements, is depleted over fast timescales (by geological standards) on ocean worlds whose oceans are neutral or alkaline in nature, and which possess hydrothermal activity (i.e. hydrothermal vent systems at the ocean floor). Hence, our work suggests that life may exist in low concentrations globally in these ocean worlds (or be present only in local patches), and may therefore not be easily detectable.”
This naturally has implications for missions destined for Europa and other moons in the outer Solar System. These include the NASA Europa Clipper mission, which is currently scheduled to launch between 2022 and 2025. Through a series of flybys of Europa, this probe will attempt to measure biomarkers in the plume activity coming from the moon’s surface.
Similar missions have been proposed for Enceladus, and NASA is also considering a “Dragonfly” mission to explore Titan’s atmosphere, surface and methane lakes. However, if Dr. Lingam and Prof. Loeb’s study is correct, then the chances of these missions finding any signs of life on an ocean world in the Solar System are rather slim. Nevertheless, as Lingam indicated, they still believe that such missions should be mounted.
“Although our model predicts that future space missions to these worlds might have low chances of success in terms of detecting extraterrestrial life, we believe that such missions are still worthy of being pursued,” he said. “This is because they will offer an excellent opportunity to: (i) test and/or falsify the key predictions of our model, and (ii) collect more data and improve our understanding of ocean worlds and their biogeochemical cycles.”
In addition, as Prof. Loeb indicated via email, this study was focused on “life as we know it”. If a mission to these worlds did find sources of extra-terrestrial life, then it would indicate that life can arise from conditions and elements that we are not familiar with. As such, the exploration of Europa and other ocean worlds is not only advisable, but necessary.
“Our paper shows that elements that are essential for the ‘chemistry-of-life-as-we-know-it’, such as phosphorous, are depleted in subsurface oceans,” he said. “As a result, life would be challenging in the oceans suspected to exist under the surface ice of Europa or Enceladus. If future missions confirm the depleted level of phosphorous but nevertheless find life in these oceans, then we would know of a new chemical path for life other than the one on Earth.”
In the end, scientists are forced to take the “low-hanging fruit” approach when it comes to searching for life in the Universe . Until such time that we find life beyond Earth, all of our educated guesses will be based on life as it exists here. I can’t imagine a better reason to get out there and explore the Universe than this!
Thanks to Cassini and other spacecraft, we’ve learned a tremendous amount about the icy worlds in the Solar System, from Jupiter’s Europa to Saturn’s Enceladus, to Pluto’s Charon. Geysers, food for bacteria, potential oceans under the ice and more. What new things have we learned about these places?
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For decades, scientists have been speculating that life could exist in beneath the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. Thanks to more recent missions (like the Cassini spacecraft), other moons and bodies have been added to this list as well – including Titan, Enceladus, Dione, Triton, Ceres and Pluto. In all cases, it is believed that this life would exist in interior oceans, most likely around hydrorthermal vents located at the core-mantle boundary.
One problem with this theory is that in such undersea environments, life might have a hard time getting some of the key ingredients it would need to thrive. However, in a recent study – which was supported by the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) – a team of researchers ventured that in the outer Solar System, the combination of high-radiation environments, interior oceans and hydrothermal activity could be a recipe for life.
For the sake of their study, Dr. Russell and his colleagues considered how the interaction between alkaline hydrothermal springs and sea water is often considered to be how the key building blocks for life emerged here on Earth. However, they emphasize that this process was also dependent on energy provided by our Sun. The same process could have happened on moon’s like Europa, but in a different way. As they state in their paper:
“[T]he significance of the proton and electron flux must also be appreciated, since those processes are at the root of life’s role in free energy transfer and transformation. Here, we suggest that life may have emerged on irradiated icy worlds such as Europa, in part as a result of the chemistry available within the ice shell, and that it may be sustained still, immediately beneath that shell.”
In the case of moon’s like Europa, hydrothermal springs would be responsible for churning up all the necessary energy and ingredients for organic chemistry to take place. Ionic gradients, such as oxyhydroxides and sulfides, could drive the key chemical processes – where carbon dioxide and methane are hydrogenated and oxidized, respectively – which could lead to the creation of early microbial life and nutrients.
At the same time, the heat from hydrothermal vents would push these microbes and nutrients upwards towards the icy crust. This crust is regularly bombarded by high-energy electrons created by Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field, a process which creates oxidants. As scientists have known for some time from surveying Europa’s crust, there is a process of exchange between the moon’s interior ocean and its surface.
As Dr. Russell and his colleagues indicate, this action would most likely involve the plume activity that has been observed on Europa’s surface, and could lead to a network of ecosystems on the underside of Europa’s icy crust:
“Models for transport of material within Europa’s ocean indicate that hydrothermal plumes could be well constrained within the ocean (primarily by the Coriolis force and thermal gradients), leading to effective delivery through the ocean to the ice-water interface. Organisms fortuitously transported from hydrothermal systems to the ice-water interface along with unspent fuels could potentially access a larger abundance of oxidants directly from the ice. Importantly, oxidants might only be available where the ice surface has been driven to the base of the ice shell.”
As Dr. Russel indicated in an interview with Astrobiology Magazine, microbes on Europa could reach densities similar to what has been observed around hydrothermal vents here on Earth, and may bolster the theory that life on Earth also emerged around such vents. “All the ingredients and free energy required for life are all focused in one place,” he said. “If we were to find life on Europa, then that would strongly support the submarine alkaline vent theory.”
This study is also significant when it comes to mounting future missions to Europa. If microbial ecosystems exist on the undersides of Europa’s icy crust, then they could be explored by robots that are able to penetrate the surface, ideally by traveling down a plume tunnel. Alternately, a lander could simply position itself near an active plume and search for signs of oxidants and microbes coming up from the interior.
Similar missions could also be mounted to Enceladus, where the presence of hydrothermal vents has already been confirmed thanks to the extensive plume activity observed around its southern polar region. Here too, a robotic tunneler could enter surface fissures and explore the interior to see if ecosystems exist on the underside of the moon’s icy crust. Or a lander could position itself near the plumes and examine what is being ejected.
Such missions would be simpler and less likely to cause contamination than robotic submarines designed to explore Europa’s deep ocean environment. But regardless of what form a future mission to Europa, Enceladus, or other such bodies takes, it is encouraging to know that any life that may exist there could be accessible. And if these missions can sniff it out, we will finally know that life in the Solar System evolved in places other than Earth!
For decades, ever since the Pioneer and Voyager missions passed through the outer Solar System, scientists have speculated that life might exist within icy bodies like Jupiter’s moon Europa. However, thanks the Cassinimission, scientists now believe that other moons in the outer Solar System – such as Saturn’s moon Enceladus – could possibly harbor life as well.
For instance, Cassini observed plume activity coming from Enceladus’ southern polar region that indicated the presence of hydrothermal activity inside. What’s more, these plumes contained organic molecules and hydrated minerals, which are potential indications of life. To see if life could thrive inside this moon, a team of scientists conducted a test where strains of Earth bacteria were subjected to conditions similar to what is found inside Enceladus.
For the sake of their study, the team chose to work with three strains of methanogenic archaea known as methanothermococcus okinawensis. This type of microorganism thrives in low-oxygen environments and consumes chemical products known to exist on Enceladus – such as methane (CH4), carbon dioxide (CO2) and molecular hydrogen (H2) – and emit methane as a metabolic byproduct. As they state:
“To investigate growth of methanogens under Enceladus-like conditions, three thermophilic and methanogenic strains, Methanothermococcus okinawensis (65 °C), Methanothermobacter marburgensis (65 °C), and Methanococcus villosus (80 °C), all able to fix carbon and gain energy through the reduction of CO2 with H2 to form CH4, were investigated regarding growth and biological CH4 production under different headspace gas compositions…”
These strains were selected because of their ability to grow in a temperature range that is characteristic of the vicinity around hydrothermal vents, in a chemically defined medium, and at low partial pressures of molecular hydrogen. This is consistent with what has been observed in Enceladus’ plumes and what is believed to exist within the moon’s interior.
These types of archaea can still be found on Earth today, lingering in deep-see fissures and around hydrothermal vents. In particular, the strain of M. okinawensis has been determined to exist in only one location around the deep-sea hydrothermal vent field at Iheya Ridge in the Okinawa Trough near Japan. Since this vent is located at a depth of 972 m (3189 ft) below sea level, this suggests that this strain has a tolerance toward high pressure.
For many years, scientists have suspected that Earth’s hydrothermal vents played a vital role in the emergence of life, and that similar vents could exist within the interior of moons like Europa, Ganymede, Titan, Enceladus, and other bodies in the outer Solar System. As a result, the research team believed that methanogenic archaea could also exist within these bodies.
After subjecting the strains to Enceladus-like temperature, pressure and chemical conditions in a laboratory environment, they found that one of the three strains was able to flourish and produce methane. The strain even managed to survive after the team introduced harsh chemicals that are present on Enceladus, and which are known to inhibit the growth of microbes. As they conclude in their study:
“In this study, we show that the methanogenic strain M. okinawensis is able to propagate and/or to produce CH4 under putative Enceladus-like conditions. M. okinawensis was cultivated under high-pressure (up to 50 bar) conditions in defined growth medium and gas phase, including several potential inhibitors that were detected in Enceladus’ plume.”
From this, they determined that some of the methane found in Enceladus’ plumes were likely produced by the presence of methanogenic microbes. As Simon Rittmann, a microbiologist at the University of Vienna and lead author of the study, explained in an interview with The Verge. “It’s likely this organism could be living on other planetary bodies,” he said. “And it could be really interesting to investigate in future missions.”
In the coming decades, NASA and other space agencies plan to send multiple mission to the Jupiter and Saturn systems to investigate their “ocean worlds” for potential signs of life. In the case of Enceladus, this will most likely involve a lander that will set down around the southern polar region and collect samples from the surface to determine the presence of biosignatures.
Alternately, an orbiter mission may be developed that will fly through Enceladus’ plumes and collect bioreadings directly from the moon’s ejecta, thus picking up where Cassini left off. Whatever form the mission takes, the discoveries are expected to be a major breakthrough. At long last, we may finally have proof that Earth is not the only place in the Solar System where live can exist.
Be sure to check out John Michael Godier’s video titled “Encedalus and the Conditions for Life” as well: