Complex Organics Molecules are Bubbling up From Inside Enceladus

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 study, titled “Macromolecular organic compounds from the depths of Enceladus“, recently appeared in the journal Nature. The study was led by Frank Postberg and Nozair Khawaja of the Institute for Earth Sciences at the University of Heidelberg, and included members from the Leibniz Institute of Surface Modification (IOM), the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and multiple universities.

The “tiger stripes” of Enceladus, as pictured by the Cassini space probe. Credit: NASA/JPL/ESA

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.

Hydrothermal activity in Enceladus’ core and the rise of organic-rich bubbles. Credit and Copyright: ESA; F. Postberg et al (2018)

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.”

Artist rendering showing an interior cross-section of the crust of Enceladus, which shows how hydrothermal activity may be causing the plumes of water at the moon’s surface. Credits: NASA-GSFC/SVS, NASA/JPL-Caltech/Southwest Research Institute

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!

Further Reading: ESA, Nature

New Study Says Enceladus has had an Internal Ocean for Billions of Years

When the Cassini mission arrived in the Saturn system in 2004, it discovered something rather unexpected in Enceladus’ southern hemisphere. From hundreds of fissures located in the polar region, plumes of water and organic molecules were spotted periodically spewing forth. This was the first indication that Saturn’s moon may have an interior ocean caused by hydrothermal activity near the core-mantle boundary.

According to a new study based on Cassini data, which it obtained before diving into Saturn’s atmosphere on September 15th, this activity may have been going on for some time. In fact, the study team concluded that if the moon’s core is porous enough, it could have generated enough heat to maintain an interior ocean for billions of years. This study is the most encouraging indication yet that the interior of Enceladus could support life.

The study, titled “Powering prolonged hydrothermal activity inside Enceladus“, recently appeared in the journal Nature Astronomy. The study was led by Gaël Choblet, a researcher with the Planetary and Geodynamic Laboratory at the University of Nantes, and included members from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Charles University, and the Institute of Earth Sciences and the Geo- and Cosmochemistry Laboratory at the University of Heidelberg.

Artist’s rendering of possible hydrothermal activity that may be taking place on and under the seafloor of Enceladus. Credit: NASA/JPL

Prior to the Cassini mission’s many flybys of Enceladus, scientists believed this moon’s surface was composed of solid ice. It was only after noticing the plume activity that they came to realize that it had water jets that extended all the way down to a warm-water ocean in its interior. From the data obtained by Cassini, scientists were even able to make educated guesses of where this internal ocean lay.

All told, Enceladus is a relatively small moon, measuring some 500 km (311 mi) in diameter. Based on gravity measurements performed by Cassini, its interior ocean is believed to lie beneath an icy outer surface at depths of 20 to 25 km (12.4 to 15.5 mi). However, this surface ice thins to about 1 to 5 km (0.6 to 3.1 mi) over the southern polar region, where the jets of water and icy particles jet through fissures.

Based on the way Enceladus orbits Saturn with a certain wobble (aka. libration), scientists have been able to make estimates of the ocean’s depth, which they place at 26 to 31 km (16 to 19 mi). All of this surrounds a core which is believed to be composed of silicate minerals and metal, but which is also porous. Despite all these findings, the source of the interior heat has remained something of an open question.

This mechanism would have to be active when the moon formed billions of years ago and is still active today (as evidenced by the current plume activity). As Dr. Choblet explained in an ESA press statement:

“Where Enceladus gets the sustained power to remain active has always been a bit of mystery, but we’ve now considered in greater detail how the structure and composition of the moon’s rocky core could play a key role in generating the necessary energy.”

Gravity measurements by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft and Deep Space Network suggest that Saturn’s moon Enceladus, which has jets of water vapor and ice gushing from its south pole, also harbors a large interior ocean beneath an ice shell, as this illustration depicts. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

For years, scientists have speculated that tidal forces caused by Saturn’s gravitational influence are responsible for Enceladus’ internal heating. The way Saturn pushes and pulls the moon as it follows an elliptical path around the planet is also believed to be what causes Enceladus’ icy shell to deform, causing the fissures around the southern polar region. These same mechanisms are believed to be what is responsible for Europa’s interior warm-water ocean.

However, the energy produced by tidal friction in the ice is too weak to counterbalance the heat loss seen from the ocean. At the rate Enceladus’ ocean is losing energy to space, the entire moon would freeze solid within 30 million years. Similarly, the natural decay of radioactive elements within the core (which has been suggested for other moons as well) is also about 100 times too weak to explain Enceladus interior and plume activity.

To address this, Dr. Choblet and his team conducted simulations of Enceladus’ core to determine what kind of conditions could allow for tidal heating over billions of years. As they state in their study:

“In absence of direct constraints on the mechanical properties of Enceladus’ core, we consider a wide range of parameters to characterize the rate of tidal friction and the efficiency of water transport by porous flow. The unconsolidated core of Enceladus can be viewed as a highly granular/fragmented material, in which tidal deformation is likely to be associated with intergranular friction during fragment rearrangements.”
Artist rendering showing an interior cross-section of the crust of Enceladus, which shows how hydrothermal activity may be causing the plumes of water at the moon’s surface.Credits: NASA-GSFC/SVS, NASA/JPL-Caltech/Southwest Research Institute

What they found was that in order for the Cassini observations to be borne out, Enceladus’ core would need to be made of unconsolidated, easily deformable, porous rock. This core could be easily permeated by liquid water, which would seep into the core and gradually heated through tidal friction between sliding rock fragments. Once this water was sufficiently heated, it would rise upwards because of temperature differences with its surroundings.

This process ultimately transfers heat to the interior ocean in narrow plumes which rise to the meet Enceladus’ icy shell. Once there, it causes the surface ice to melt and forming fissures through which jets reach  into space, spewing water, ice particles and hydrated minerals that replenish Saturn’s E-Ring. All of this is consistent with the observations made by Cassini, and is sustainable from a geophysical point of view.

In other words, this study is able to show that action in Enceladus’ core could produce the necessary heating to maintain a global ocean and produce plume activity. Since this action is a result of the core’s structure and tidal interaction with Saturn, it is perfectly logical that it has been taking place for billions of years. So beyond providing the first coherent explanation for Enceladus’ plume activity, this study is also a strong indication of habitability.

As scientists have come to understand, life takes a long time to get going. On Earth, it is estimated that the first microorganisms arose after 500 million years, and hydrothermal vents are believed to have played a key role in that process. It took another 2.5 billion years for the first multi-cellular life to evolve, and land-based plants and animals have only been around for the past 500 million years.

Knowing that moons like Enceladus – which has the necessary chemistry to support for life – has also had the necessary energy for billions of years is therefore very encouraging. One can only imagine what we will find once future missions begin inspecting its plumes more closely!

Further Reading: ESA, Nature Astronomy

Ceres Provides First Detection Of Life’s Building Blocks In Asteroid Belt

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has been poking around Ceres since it first established orbit in March of 2015. In that time, the mission has sent back a steam of images of the minor planet, and with a level of resolution that was previously impossible. Because of this, a lot of interesting revelations have been made about Ceres’ composition and surface features (like its many “bright spots“).

In what is sure to be the most surprising find yet, the Dawn spacecraft has revealed that Ceres may actually possess the ingredients for life. Using data from the Dawn spacecraft’s Visible and InfraRed Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS), an international team of scientists has confirmed the existence of organic molecules on Ceres – a find which could indicate that it has conditions favorable to life.

These findings – which were detailed in a study titled Localized aliphatic organic material on the surface of Ceres” – appeared in the Feb. 17th, 2017, issue of Science. For the sake of their study, the international team of researchers – which was led by Maria Cristina de Sanctis from the National Institute of Astrophysics in Rome, Italy – showed how Dawn sensor data pointed towards the presence of aliphatic compounds on the surface.

Enhanced color-composite image from Dawn’s visible and infrared mapping spectrometer, showing the area around Ernutet Crater on Ceres. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/ASI/INAF

Aliphatics are a type of organic compound where carbon atoms form open chains that are commonly bound with oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur and chlorine. The least complex aliphatic is methane, which has been detected in many locations across the Solar System – including in the Martian atmosphere and in both liquid and gaseous form on Saturn’s moon Titan.

From their study, Dr. de Sanctis and her colleagues determined that spectral data obtained by the VIMS instrument corresponded to the presence of these hydrocarbons in a region outside of the Ernutet crater. This crater, which is located in the northern hemisphere of Ceres, measures about 52 km (32 mi) in diameter. The aliphatic compounds which were detected were localized in a roughly 1000 square kilometers region around it.

The team ruled out the possibility that these organic molecules were deposited from an external source – such as a comet or carbonaceous chondrite asteroid. While both have been shown to contain organic molecules in their interior in the past, the largest concentrations on Ceres were distributed discontinuously across the southwest floor and rim of the Ernutet crater and onto an older, highly degraded crater.

In addition, other organic-rich areas were spotted being are scattered to the northwest of the crater. As Dr.  Maria Cristina De Sanctis told Universe Today via email:

“The composition that we see on Ceres is similar to some meteorites that has organics and thus we searched for this material. We considered both endogenous and exogenous origin, but the last one seems less likely due to several reasons including the larger abundance observed on Ceres with respect the meteorites.”

Dawn spacecraft data, showing the organics absorption band (warmer colors indicate highest concentrations). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/ASI/INAF/MPS/DLR/IDA

Instead, they considered the possibility that they organic molecules were endogenous in origin. In the past, surveys have shown evidence of hydrothermal activity on Ceres, which included signs of surface renewal and fluid mobility. Combined with other surveys that have detected ammonia-bearing hydrated minerals, water ice, carbonates, and salts, this all points towards Ceres having an environment that can support prebiotic chemistry.

“The overall composition of Ceres can favor the pre-biotic chemistry,” said De Sanctis. “Ceres has water ice and minerals (carbonates and phyllosilicates) derived  from pervasive aqueous  alteration of rocks. It has also material that we think is formed in hydrothermal environments.  All these information indicate condition not hostel to biotic molecules.”

These findings are certainly significant in helping to determine if life could exist on Ceres – in a way that is similar to Europa and Enceladus, locked away beneath its icy mantle. But given that Ceres is believed to have originated 4.5 billion years ago (when the Solar System was still in the process of formation), this study is also significant in that it can shed light on the origin, evolution, and distribution of organic life in our the Solar System.

Other members of the research team include researchers from the department of Earth Planetary and Space Sciences at the University of California, the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of Tennessee, the Department of Earth, Environmental, and Planetary Sciences at Brown University, the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Further Reading: ScienceMag, SwRI