Here's What You Need to Know About the New Evidence Pointing to Life On Saturn's Moon Enceladus
An international cohort of scientists analyzing data from mass spectrometers aboard NASA's Cassini space probe have discovered complex organic molecules – necessary for life to exist – bubbling up from the ice-covered oceans on the surface of Saturn moon Enceladus. The results of the study were published as an article, "Macromolecular organic compounds from the depths of Enceladus," in Nature. The discovery has led to increased excitement over the possibility of life inhabiting the tiny moon – it's a mere 314 miles in diameter – which has been considered a candidate for life since the discovery of watery plumes emanating from its south pole in 2005, which turned out to be coming from salt water oceans beneath a crust of surface ice.
Until now, only simple organic compounds – small carbon-based molecules generally in the form of gases like methane and ethane weighing around 15 atomic units – were detected in the plumes. This research has revealed much heavier molecules comprised of seven to 15 carbon atoms and varying quantities of hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen. In an interview with The Independent, lead researcher Frank Postberg of the University of Heidelberg cautiously stated that "complex organic molecules do not necessarily provide a habitable environment, but on the other hand they are a necessary precursor for life."
The scientific significance of these findings, however, was driven home by Postberg. "This is the first-ever detection of complex organics coming from an extraterrestrial water world," he told Space.com.
Space oceanographer Dr. Christopher Glein underscored Postberg's statement, telling The Independent that Enceladus is the only body besides Earth that may "simultaneously satisfy all of the basic requirements for life as we know it." Glein is far from alone in his analysis. Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science Director Jonathan I. Lunine, who sought to establish an Enceladus Life Finder mission in 2015 (NASA declined to fund it) to investigate the plumes, was even more emphatic in asserting the importance of focusing research on the moon. "What we know today is telling us that Enceladus is an outstanding target to go look for life, and there may be microbes living in that ocean today," Lunine told National Geographic, adding,
Although no future trips to Enceladus are currently in the works, two missions to Europa and Ganymede – two of Jupiter's icy moons with oceans – by the European Space Agency are planned for 2022. If there is life lurking in the gaseous waters of Enceladus, it will have to wait before we attempt a visit.
Here's more Outer Places' coverage of Enceladus.