Astrobio Top 10: Complex organic molecules discovered in Enceladus’ plumes could hint at life

As 2018 comes to a close, Astrobiology Magazine is counting down our ‘Top 10’ stories for the year. At number 4: The essential building blocks of life have been discovered emanating from the subsurface ocean of one of Saturn’s moons. This story was originally published on June 27, 2018.

The plumes of Enceladus, imaged by Cassini. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

Carbon-rich organic molecules, which could potentially form the building blocks of life, have been discovered in the watery plumes spewing out from fissures in the surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The discovery enhances Enceladus’ growing reputation as the best place in the Solar System to look for life.

Enceladus’ plumes were discovered emanating from numerous fractures called ‘Tiger Stripes’, located in the 504-kilometer-wide moon’s southern hemisphere, by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. The source of these plumes is an alkaline and mildly saltysubsurface ocean in which life could potentially be found. Although the ocean is currently beyond our reach, the plumes provide a way of sampling the ocean from orbit.

Consequently, Cassini flew through the plumes on several occasions, ‘tasting’ them with its Cosmic Dust Analyzer and Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer. In new results published in the 28 June 2018 issue of Nature, scientists have revealed that during those plume flights, Cassini detected large, complex organic molecules. Previously, only very simple organic molecules, such as methanol, had been identified in the plumes.

Organic origins

Organic molecules are built from long chains of carbon atoms and are the main components of biomolecules – molecules that facilitate the biochemistry of life, such as DNA and RNA – and can be produced by biological processes. However, the presence of organic molecules does not necessarily mean there is life on Enceladus: organics can also form via geochemical processes involving interactions between water and rock.

An artist’s cross-section of Enceladus, showing its icy crust, subsurface ocean and rocky core. The plumes emanate from the Tiger Stripe fissures at the moon’s near the moon’s south pole. Image credit: NASA/JPL–Caltech

In order to determine how the organic molecules formed, determining their composition “is key to [their] origin,” says Dr Christopher Glein, who is a geochemist at the South-west Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas and an author on the Naturepaper. Cassini was launched in 1997, almost a decade before the discovery of the plumes, and its instruments were not designed for sampling the plumes or distinguishing between complex organic molecules.

“We need the ability to identify which specific organic molecules are in the plumes,” Glein tells Astrobiology Magazine. “This will help us to determine if any of them, or any groups of them, can be considered biosignatures.”

Basic requirements for life

It isn’t the first time that complex organic molecules have been detected elsewhere in the Solar System. They’ve previously been found within carbonaceous chondritic meteorites, in the dust tails of comets, and in the atmosphere of another of Saturn’s moons, Titan.

“What is special, though, is finding these materials emanating from a habitable liquid water ocean at Enceladus,” says Glein, who describes Enceladus as “the only body besides Earth known to simultaneously satisfy all of the basic requirements for life as we know it.”

Icy Enceladus. The linear Tiger Stripes can be seen at the bottom. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

Besides liquid water and complex organic chemistry, another basic requirement is a source of energy on which life can live. When Cassini flew through one of the plumes on 28 October 2015, it detected molecular hydrogen thought to have formed in geochemical reactions in hydrothermal vents on the sea floor. If the hypothesis is correct and such vents exist, then they could be an ample source of nourishment for any microbes present in the alkaline and mildly salty ocean.

Future missions

With Cassini having purposefully dived into Saturn’s atmosphere to end its mission in September 2017, there’s little more that scientists can do until a new mission heads to Enceladus with instruments specifically designed to study the plumes. Glein suggests to Astrobiology Magazine that any future mission will need to conduct high-resolution mass spectrometry of the plumes, and further mass spectrometry and gas chromatography in the tiger stripes on the surface, possibly followed by a sample-return mission, to really understand what processes are occurring on Enceladus and whether life could be at the heart of them.

“We don’t know yet [what those processes are],” says Glein. “We’re only seeing and appreciating the tip of the iceberg.”