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The hunt for life on Saturn’s moon Enceladus just got a big boost

Published Oct 2nd, 2019 5:50PM EDT
enceladus life
Image: NASA

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Of all the worlds in our solar system that may harbor some form of life, Saturn’s moon Enceladus may be the most exciting. The moon is a vast water ocean covered with a thick sheet of ice, and we know that liquid water is trapped below because cracks in the surface allow that water to spew into space.

Now, data from NASA’s Cassini mission has revealed that ice crystals originating from Enceladus include organic compounds that could offer a clue as to whether life is hiding deep within the planet. The discovery is the subject of a new paper published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Without actually visiting Enceladus it’s incredibly difficult to identify the presence of life below the surface. So, scientists have to look for the tiniest clues that hint that life is possible, and organic compounds that make up amino acids are part of that complex puzzle.

NASA’s Cassini probe was able to study some of the material ejected from the moon’s ice cracks using its Cosmic Dust Analyzer. Last year, an examination of the data returned by the probe revealed the presence of large organic molecules in material from the moon, which was a tantalizing glimpse into a potentially life-sustaining system at work in the massive ocean beneath the ice.

This latest discovery is an extension of that work, revealing the smaller components that could serve as the foundation for amino acid formation which is vital to life as we understand it.

“Here we are finding smaller and soluble organic building blocks — potential precursors for amino acids and other ingredients required for life on Earth,” study co-author Jon Hillier said in a statement.

Deep within Earth’s oceans, life is sustained in a complete absence of sunlight. It’s cold down there, but many species have evolved to withstand it. Others tend to favor areas near hydrothermal vents, where incredibly hot water spews from fissures in the seafloor. Life, as it turns out, doesn’t need light to survive, and with warm water deep within Enceladus, it’s entirely possible that there’s something — or perhaps many different somethings — down there. We just have to go find it.

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