Complex Organics Bubble up from Enceladus

Complex Organics Bubble up from Enceladus

The sixth largest of Saturn's moons, Enceladus is only about 314 miles (505 kilometers) in diameter.

These molecules have masses above 200 atomic mass units - which makes them over 10 times heavier than methane - and scientists reckon that chemical reactions between the moon's rocky core and warm water from the subsurface ocean are linked to the complex molecules.

The results of this study have, according to Glein, "a great importance" for other explorations, since a future space probe could fly through a column of Enceladus and analyze those complex organic molecules using a high-resolution mass spectrometer that could help analyze how they are made.

During the mission's incredible career, scientists discovered that 500 kilometer-wide Enceladus has a massive sub-surface ocean hidden underneath a thick icy crust, with evidence pointing to powerful hydrothermal vents on the seabed that mix up material from the moon's water-filled, porous core with the ocean water. In the vents, where the water's surface is open to space, these bubbles burst, spraying the familiar plumes of water vapor, ice and organic molecules. "Previously we'd only identified the simplest organic molecules containing a few carbon atoms, but even that was very intriguing".

Similarly impressed is Frank Postberg of the University of Heidelberg, lead author on the paper describing the results today in the journal Nature.

Despite that, she said she marvels at the findings form Enceladus. The discovery suggested that the moon can be the most promising host to other life forms beyond Earth.

"We are, yet again, blown away by Enceladus", study co-author Christopher Glein, a Southwest Research Institute space scientist specializing in extraterrestrial chemical oceanography, said in a statement.

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As National Geographic reports, before the Saturn-exploring Cassini spacecraft committed suicide in 2017 by plunging itself into Saturn's atmosphere, it had sent back mountains of data - data that is still being crunched to this day. This was the first indication that the moon can boast active geochemical below the surface, most likely between water and rocks in hydrothermal vents.

"Once you have identified a potential food source for microbes, the next question to ask is 'what is the nature of the complex organics in the ocean?'" says SwRI's Dr. Hunter Waite, INMS principal investigator and paper coauthor.

The new study adds the detection of large, carbon-rich organic molecules to the previous findings, surprising the researchers.

Data collected on Mars was far more detailed as compared to Cassini's Enceladus findings, but in the past 12 to 15 months the discoveries that have been made supports the fact that this distant moon is one of the most suitable places to support life in our solar system.

Enceladus is essentially a vast ocean of water surrounded by a huge layer of ice. This was a sign that the body contained a subsurface ocean that could potentially harbor life.

Scientists have forever been fascinated by the possibility of life beyond our planet, having been busy probing the skies and firing out rockets and robots into space to find out more.

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