first flew through the plumes of Saturn's moon Enceladus
in November 2009, capturing this image along the way.
Now, new data suggests that those plumes might contain
organic (carbon-based) molecules.
More than 100 geysers
blast water ice, organic molecules
and other material into space
from the south polar region of
Saturn’s moon Enceladus.
Because there is life
virtually wherever there is water on Earth, these findings suggested
that life might also exist on Enceladus.
Now, researchers have detected complex organic molecules from the moon, including some at least 15 carbon atoms in size.
The scientists analyzed data that Cassini gathered when it flew within a plume from Enceladus, as well as from when the probe passed through Saturn's E ring, which is made up of ice grains spewed from Enceladus.
detected ice grains loaded with complex organic material in both the
plume and the E ring.
Saturn's moon Enceladus (center right)
blasts material into the planet's E ring.
Frank Postberg noted that most of the organic-loaded ice grains the researchers saw were in Saturn's E ring.
This might suggest that these complex organic molecules were not produced within Enceladus, but instead resulted from sunlight-triggered chemical reactions in space.
The researchers cautioned that these new findings are not solid evidence for life, as biological reactions are not the only potential sources of complex organic molecules.
The Cassini spacecraft
has been studying Saturn and its moons
since it entered orbit in 2004.
This image, taken on Oct. 5, 2008,
is a stunning mosaic of the geologically
active Enceladus after a Cassini flyby.
The next logical step is to go back to Enceladus soon,
Postberg added that NASA and the European Space Agency already have missions, Europa Clipper and JUICE, respectively, scheduled to launch in 2022 that will visit Europa and Ganymede, the icy moons of Jupiter that have subsurface oceans.
These missions will check
for habitability on those worlds.