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Home | Tag Archives: Enceladus

Tag Archives: Enceladus

Amy’s Everyday Astronomy: Organic Compounds found in Saturn’s moon Enceladus

Although the Cassini mission ended in September 2017, the data collected is still being examined by scientists. So much had been transmitted by the probe that it will take decades to sift through it all.

Recently, a science team led by Nozair Khawaja of the Free University of Berlin, were studying some of this data collected by the spacecraft’s Cosmic Dust Analyzer (CDA), which detected ice grains emitted from Enceladus into Saturn’s E Ring.

The scientists used the CDA’s mass spectrometer measurements to determine the composition of the material in the grains.

Powerful hydrothermal vents regularly eject material from the core of Enceladus. This material mixes with water from the moon’s massive subsurface ocean and then is released into space as water vapor and ice grains.

The team discovered new molecules condensed into the ice grains that turned out to be nitrogen and oxygen bearing compounds. These compounds were determined to be organic, the ingredients of amino acids.

Here on Earth, similar compounds are part of a chemical reactions that also produce these building blocks of life. Hydrothermal vents on our ocean floor provide the heat and energy that fuels these reactions. This lends to the belief that the hydrothermal vents on Enceladus might operate in the same way, by supplying the energy needed to produce amino acids.

And now, these organic compounds have been verified in the plumes of Enceladus.

“If the conditions are right, these molecules coming from the deep ocean of Enceladus could be on the same reaction pathway as we see here on Earth. We don’t yet know if amino acids are needed for life beyond Earth but finding the molecules that form amino acids is an important piece of the puzzle,” said Khawaja, whose findings were published October 2nd in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

These new findings work to complement the discovery made by the team last year of large, insoluble complex organic molecules that are believed to float on the surface of Enceladus’ ocean. These finding are what prompted the team to dive deeper with this recent work. Their goal was to hopefully find the ingredients, dissolved in the ocean, that would be needed to form amino acid formation.

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

“This work shows that Enceladus’ ocean has reactive building blocks in abundance, and it’s another green light in the investigation of the habitability of Enceladus,” added co-author Frank Postberg.

Cassini-Huygens is a mission cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Italian Space Agency. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. To learn more about the mission and the science learned from its data, visit the official website.

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Amy’s Everyday Astronomy: Vid+Story – Search for Life Begins With Search for Water

Ever since humans first began looking up at the night sky, the one question that always burned in the mind has been: are we alone?

There are many legends among ancient civilizations that talk of visitors from the heavens and some even built entire religions on this idea. But, in more modern times, we have little to no evidence of life beyond our little blue marble.

In 1976, NASA sent two Viking Landers to Mars in an attempt to find that answer, with the help of Gilbert Levin.

As the principal investigator of the Vikings’ Labeled Release experiment, it was his job to determine whether life has ever existed on the Red Planet.

Unfortunately, while the results were positive for signs of life, the scientific consensus deemed those findings as inconclusive because certain other chemical reactions might be able to produce the same results.

Forty years later, the topic is still hotly debated, especially given that Mars has seasonal methane spikes. And with Italy finding, what they believe to be, a subterranean lake in the southern polar region of Mars, the idea of microbial life existing there has become even more tantalizing.

The one thing life as we know it MUST HAVE is water. Geological signs of ancient water flowing on Mars are evident. But with its weak magnetic field, solar wind and radiation make holding liquid water nearly impossible on the surface. And given its distance from the sun, Mars is also very cold.

That means that any surface water would likely only exist as ice, as is evident in the north and south polar caps, much like we see on Earth.

There’s no doubt that Mars has fired the imaginations of humans for centuries. However, it’s not the only body in our solar system that could have, or may still, house life. Europa, a large, icy moon of Jupiter, is thought to have a subsurface ocean.

Scientists theorize that this ocean may be able to remain liquid because of thermal vents deep below the ice.

Set to launch sometime between 2022 and 2025, NASA is working on a spacecraft designed specifically for investigating Europa. Called the Europa Clipper, this mission will orbit Jupiter and conduct a detailed investigation of the icy moon.

During the normal part of the mission, the Clipper will perform 45 flybys of the frozen satellite to confirm findings made by Hubble of water vapor plumes that seem to emit from the southern polar region.

Studying the composition of these plumes will help NASA determine the potential habitability of Europa.

Similarly, Enceladus, another frozen moon that orbits the planet Saturn, could also house a subsurface ocean deep beneath its icy crust.
But our solar system is not the only place in the cosmos that might have water.

Earlier this year, scientist announced seven planets orbiting Trappist 1, a star located 39 light years from our sun. These planets are similar in size to Earth and Venus and are rocky. Because the planets transit their star, the light from Trappist 1 shines through the atmospheres of the far away worlds.

All seven planets have a solid core, and spectral analysis of their atmospheres shows evidence for the existence of water. In fact, scientists believe it’s possible that some of the planets are 5% water by mass.

This would mean that they likely have MORE water than Earth does.

As scientific research and analysis continue to advance our understanding of what’s out there, it seems likely that we won’t have much longer to wait before we know, definitively, that we are, in fact, not alone.

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