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NASA detects organic compounds suitable for life in an ocean on Enceladus

NASA detects organic compounds suitable for life in an ocean on Enceladus

Scientists have detected the basic ingredients for life from an ocean on Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons. Analysis of NASA data shows the presence of organic compounds in plumes of liquid water shooting into space from the ocean. The findings appear in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society journal. 

These compounds contain nitrogen, oxygen and play a major role in creating amino acids, the building blocks of protein. Researchers previously detected organic molecules from the moon but this is the first time molecules were found to be dissolved in water. This indicates that compounds could take part in chemical reactions under the sea leading to amino acids. 

Frank Postberg, one of the study’s authors said that this work reveals the building blocks that are abundant in the ocean of Enceladus. This is a positive indication to carry out research for the habitability of the moon. Jets of ocean water and ice shoot out into space regularly through the cracks in the crust of the moon. 

The compounds were dissolved in the ocean water which then evaporated with surface water finally getting condensed and frozen into the crust of the moon. They were carried into space by the plumes and detected by Cassini spacecraft of NASA. This is an indication that Enceladus might have its own method of generation of life. 

In the oceans of Earth, seawater combines with magma which comes out through the cracks in the ocean floor. This results in the production of hydrothermal vents whose temperature can rise till 370 degrees Celsius. The water from these vents is rich in hydrogen, catalyzing chemical reactions of organic compounds into amino acids. These then combine to form proteins, one of the main components of life. This method works without sunlight and this is significant in the case of Enceladus where the sunlight is reflected back to space in its entirety. So life has to develop in the dark. 

Nozair Khawaja, the research team leader said that the molecules might follow the same pathway in oceans of Enceladus as that of Earth. The discovery of molecules forming amino acids is quite significant. The compounds discovered by the team last were not soluble in water hence researchers were not sure if the organic molecules on Enceladus were capable of life formation. 

Cassini was launched in 1997 and it spent 13 years in the exploration of Saturn and its moons. Scientists purposefully crashed the spacecraft into Saturn thereby ending its mission as they did not want to contaminate Enceladus or Titan in any manner.

Cassini found a global ocean containing liquid saltwater below the surface of Enceladus and captured images of water jets shooting to space. The data about their composition was collected in 2008. Scientists will continue studying the data collected by Cassini as NASA also plans of sending a probe to Titan, another moon of Saturn which also contains organic compounds. Dragonfly, a nuclear-powered helicopter will start for Titan in 2026 and arrive in 2034.

Reference: Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society journal.  

Daphnis saturn moon

NASA’s Cassini reveals new sculpting in Saturn’s rings

The beautiful planet, Saturn, popular for its complex rings was found to have more hidden details on intrinsic textures, colours and temperatures by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.

The Cassini mission was concluded two years ago but the spacecraft’s trip to the ring planet is still transferring data to the planet about Saturn and its evolution through all these years. A paper which was published in the Science journal had followed four of the Cassini’s major instruments and observed the interaction between Saturn’s main rings and its tiny moons. Using the observational data of this, scientists have an elucidate picture of how Saturn’s rings are part of astrophysical disk processes that have been impacting the solar system.

Cassini also took into notice the fine details that were sculpted by masses within these rings. New maps that were released revealed how do chemical, colour, and temperature-related changes are, across the rings of Saturn.

The observation made by the spacecraft enabled scientists to attain a better grasp of the complexity of Saturn. It enabled the scientists to hypothesize the outer edge of the main rings of the ringed planet are formed due to impacts of the celestial bodies hitting the ring. This information also tells us that the rings were also shaped by material streams that are known to circle the planet. The close-ups of the rings highlights that the textures happen in belts which possess sharp boundaries and these belts are not connected to any of the planet’s rings.

The way these rings look tells that there is some peculiar characteristic particles present that affect whatever takes place between any two rings. Another mystery uncovered by Cassini’s VIMS( Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer ) was that it detected unusually weak water-ice bands in the A ring’s outermost area. It was shocking to find the water-ice bands, because the vicinity is known to be very reflective, which could be a sign of less-contaminated ice and fortified water-ice bands.

The new spectral map that the scientists found also provided insights to the composition of the ring, confirming that ammonia ice and methane ice are not the contents but water ice is the major content of the planet’s rings. The drawback was that it could not spot any organic compounds.

According to the scientist of the Cassini project, Linda Spilker, it was like turning up the power by one more time to know what was inside the ring so that everyone could actually get to see it as an extra resolution which answered many questions but most tantalizing ones, however, remain.