Cassini Probe Finds "Ingredients for Life" on Saturn's Moon Enceladus

By Andrew Moseman | February 9, 2010 12:32 pm

enceladusFive years ago, the Cassini spacecraft first detected plumes of water ice emanating from Saturn’s moon Enceladus, making the moon one of the best hopes for finding life somewhere else in the solar system. Astronomers have argued over whether or not those jets come from a subsurface ocean of liquid water, but new findings by Cassini provide evidence that water could indeed be sloshing around beneath the frozen surface of this small moon.

During a 2008 pass through the plumes, the spacecraft found negatively charged water molecules. Back home this short-lived type of ion is produced where water is moving, such as in waterfalls or crashing ocean waves [Scientific American]. Researcher Andrew Coates led the study, which is coming out in the journal Icarus.

Besides the water ions, the team also found negatively charged hydrocarbons—huge ions that could result from Saturn’s magnetic field and the sun’s ultraviolet rays interacting with the atmosphere of Enceladus. Researchers find the combination of ions enticing. “While it’s no surprise that there is water there, these short-lived ions are extra evidence for sub-surface water and where there’s water, carbon and energy, some of the major ingredients for life are present,” said Dr Coates [BBC News]. Previous studies have shown that the Enceladus plumes contain ammonia, which could act as an antifreeze to keep an ocean in liquid state, and others have argued that the plumes are spewing sodium, which would indicate that liquid water had been in contact with rocks that leach salt.

Cassini’s new ion findings make Enceladus look a little more like its big brother, the huge and also hugely interesting Saturnian moon of Titan. In fact, the same plasma spectrometer on board Cassini has been used to confirm the presence of large negative hydrocarbon ions high in the atmosphere of Titan, indicating the presence of an organic mix of chemicals called “tholins” on Titan’s surface [Discovery News]. NASA just extended Cassini’s mission by seven more years, giving it time to learn even more about both of these marvelous moons.

Related Content:
80beats: Antifreeze Might Allow For Oceans—And Life—On Enceladus
80beats: Does Enceladus, Saturn’s Geyser-Spouting Moon, Have Liquid Oceans?
80beats: New Evidence of Hospitable Conditions for Life on Saturn’s Moons
80beats: Geysers From Saturn’s Moon May Indicate Liquid Lakes, and a Chance for Life
80beats: Cassini Spacecraft Snaps Pictures of Saturn’s Geyser-Spouting Moon

Image: NASA / Cassini

  • Jhem

    I, for one, welcome our new Enceladusian overlords :)

  • Joseph Smidt

    “I, for one, welcome our new Enceladusian overlords :)”

    I agree. :)

  • Matt T

    Fools! The Overloards of Titan will crush the puny Enceladusian leaders!

    PS. Overlords of Titan will be playing at Coachella

  • Filet-theist

    I will not be surprised when we finally discover basic organisms thriving in these environments. Won’t take away any of the “wow” factor, though.

  • Cubedweller

    pffft. Puny Enceladusians! Look how far away they are from the cool kid crowd of rocky inner planets! They’re hicks, and we all know it! Solar Hillbilly Overlords? In My Inner Solar System? C’mon if you think you’re hard enough!!!

  • David

    Overlords? Ha! to them I say “, breathe my poison oxygen atmosphere and die! ha ha ha !

  • Dave A

    Spare a thought for us UK-based Cassini scientists working on this and other projects – UK government is trying to cut its involvement in Cassini to save a trivial sum of money that has been wasted elsewhere through bureaucracy and poor management at the UK research councils.
    3 Cassini instrument teams are based in the UK, including Andrew Coates’ team that contributed to this discovery, along with many post-docs & PhD students.

  • Claire

    While this is an interesting discovery, scientists looking for life need to remember that the life will likely be very different to our own. Who is to say that life on Enceladus or any other body will depend on liquid water, or on oxygen, or be carbon-based? The presence of any chemical at all may be an indicator of some kind of life, so a method should be devised which doesn’t preclude completely un-Earth-like lifeforms from being detected.

  • Mikey G

    Well–Life has not been found in our solar system yet, but I think it will soon enough. People will be saying “This proves we are not alone” and the other camp will say that “This only proves were not alone in OUR SOLAR SYSTEM..”
    I think that it would prove that our Universe is undeniable TEEMING with life…To think otherwise would be ridiculous–If alien life is proven in our solar system, with such a tiny sample size as our number of planets and moons, it MUST be widespread out there, in the beyond…

  • Leon S

    Really interesting comments. Its quite fascinating though that we still consider ourselves being “alone” in the Universe, considering the Earth’s population…and we still can’t seem to get human cohesion right within Planet Earth.

    The chances are that life will be found eventually. How it will react to our explorative persistence remains to be seen.

    Remember, when we do find life – “We come in peace”. Even though Peace might actually mean being left alone in the first place….

  • Brian Too

    What I really want to know is if Enceladus contains the ingredients for salad.

    Mmmmmm. Cassini salad!


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