Researchers believe they may be able to support whether tiny aliens exist on one of Saturn’s 83 moons without having to land a spacecraft there.
Enceladus — about 800 million miles away and 25 times smaller than Earth — has captured the imagination of planetary scientists searching for life beyond the blue marble. Saturn’s moon ejects geyser-like plumes containing chunks of water and gas from its ocean into space. This continuous spray creates a halo, which contributes to one of Saturn’s rings.
Scientists have pushed NASA to approve future missions to explore the world, asking for financial support to land on its surface. One such proposal, the Enceladus Orbilander designed by the Johns Hopkins Laboratory of Applied Physics in Maryland, would study it from the Moon’s soil—as well as from space—over a 1.5-year period beginning in the 2050s. mission would cost about $2.5 billion, according to The Planetary Society, a nonprofit focused on advancing space science.
Now a research team led by the University of Arizona has presented a proposal for an approach that is relatively simple, suggesting that all scientists should do is determine whether the microbes living beneath the icy shell of Enceladus are an orbiting space probe. The study was published in The Planetary Science Journal this December.
“Our research shows that if a biosphere exists in Enceladus’ ocean, signs of its existence could be detected in plume material without the need for landing or drilling,” Antonin Affholder, the lead author, said in a statement, “but such a mission would require an orbiter to fly through the plume multiple times to collect a lot of oceanic material.”
Scientists detect something exciting brewing in the seas of Enceladus
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft captured this mosaic image of Enceladus in 2008.
Credit: NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute
Just how many times? Perhaps more than 100 flights, according to the paper.
To discover the presence of alien life, the research team turned the problem upside down: Instead of trying to answer how much organic matter would have to be found to prove that life exists, they focused on the maximum amount of organic material that could be present without ZOE.
When Enceladus was first studied in 1980 by NASA’s Voyager 1 probe, it appeared to be little more than a small snowball. More recently, researchers learned that the moon’s thick ice layer hides a warm sea ocean, spewing methane, a gas that normally comes from bacteria and other microorganisms on Earth. Between 2005 and 2017, NASA’s uncrewed Cassini spacecraft flew through Saturn’s rings and moons, revealing a wealth of new information.
Last year, a collaboration between the University of Arizona and the Université Paris Sciences et Lettres in Paris estimated that microbial life forms on Enceladus could be what causes the moon to belch methane.
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NASA’s Cassini spacecraft spotted plumes of material erupting from Enceladus in this 2011 image.
Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute
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“Signs of its existence could be detected in plume material without the need for landing or drilling.”
The chance of detecting real cells may be slim, because they would have to survive the journey of being ejected from deep within an ocean into the vacuum of space. The team of scientists says that organic molecules, such as certain amino acids, would serve as evidence to support or rule out habitation.
If the readings came back above a certain threshold, it would be strong that microbes live on Enceladus.
But Affholder said, “Definitive evidence of living cells caught on an alien world may remain elusive for generations.”
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