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Heavy & complex organic compounds found on Saturn moon Enceladus

Scientists have discovered complex organic compounds blasting from the small Saturn moon of Enceladus-- it may now be the most promising place to look for life.

By Nesta Mon 22 Apr, 2019 12:32 PM
On the small Saturn moon of Enceladus (the sixth largest moon of Saturn), scientists have discovered heavy organic compounds jettisoned by the fountains of 'alien' seawater perpetually blasting from the moon. These compounds are the building blocks of life as we know it, and make Enceladus the most promising place of potential life in the solar system. Besides Earth, of course.

Blasting from the Saturn moon of Enceladus through great fountains of extraterrestrial seawater are many of the ingredients for life as we know it -- water, salt, silica, and even simple carbon-containing compounds. Among these materials expulsed from the moon are the building blocks of life as we know it: heavy organic compounds containing hundreds of atoms arranged in rings and chains. This makes Enceladus, small Saturn moon that it is, the most promising place to search for life in the solar system.

Found through the usage of the now dead spacecraft Cassini -- which discovered the icy jets in 2005 -- the geysers were a surprise to many scientists, who discovered that these jets were blasting through holes and fissures in the southern region of Enceladus' poles, and contained seawater from a global ocean locked under the moon's icy crust. Through studying these jets, scientists have been able to study both the jets themselves, and the ocean that they originate from, and have since been able to calculate the salinity and acidity of the ocean, identify ejected organic compounds such as methane, and determine that hydrothermal vents in the seafloor are providing heat and energy.

Yet, the fact that these molecules have been discovered raises a question: is this the work of general chemistry, or is it a sign of alien life?

First Time

This is the first time heavy organic compounds have been found on Enceladus; previously Cassini found gassy molecules such as methane and ethane, which contain one or two carbon atoms and a smattering of hydrogens; these molecules weigh in at around 15 atomic mass units. Only the newly detected molecules are as heavy as 200 atomic mass units and comprise anywhere between seven and 15 carbon atoms, handfuls of hydrogens, as well as nitrogen and oxygen.

“While we have found large molecules outside of Earth before, this is the first time they have been detected emerging from a liquid water ocean,” says Morgan Cable of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, tasked with finding life in unlikely places on Earth.

“Many large organic molecules are not stable in liquid water for extended periods of time, so one of the next questions to ask is, where are these organic molecules coming from?”

He and his colleagues believe that the molecules, heavy as they are, rise from the moon's buried oceans, and float in a layer of air where the geysers spout their components into the cold of space at Enceladus' south pole, through sticking to 'grains' of ice that are jettisoned into space.

“Our oceans have a thin film of organic molecules floating on top—think 'oil slick' but made up of life and its byproducts—that covers the ocean to a significant extent,” Cable says. “Now it seems that Enceladus has this too. But is it also made by life?”

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Fri 24 May, 2019 10:47 PM
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