Cassini’s Legacy: Enigmatic Enceladus Will Inspire Us for Generations to Come

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NASA’s Cassini mission captured this view of icy moon Enceladus on March 29, 2017. The crescent is lit by the sun, but the near-side green hue is reflected sunlight bouncing off Saturn’s atmosphere — a.k.a. “Saturn glow” (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

The day before Cassini plunged into Saturn’s atmosphere, dramatically ending 13 years of Saturn exploration (and nearly two decades in space), I was sitting on a bench outside the Von Karman Visitor Center on the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory campus in La Cañada Flintridge with Linda Spilker, who served as the mission’s project scientist since before Cassini was launched.

What was supposed to be a quick 5-minute chat before lunch, turned into a wonderful 20-minute discussion about Cassini’s discoveries. But it was also about what the spacecraft meant to Spilker and how other space missions have shaped her life.

“I feel very fortunate to be involved with Cassini since the very beginning … and just to be there, to be one of the first to see SOI [Saturn Orbital Insertion] with those first incredible ring pictures,” she told me. “I love being an explorer. I worked on the Voyager mission during the flybys of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune; that sort of whet my appetite and made me want more, to become an explorer to go to the Saturn system.”

Spilker especially loved studying Saturn’s rings, not only from a scientific perspective, but also because they are so beautiful, she continued. “It’s been a heartwarming experience,” she said.

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Before Cassini crashed into Saturn’s atmosphere, it took a series of observations that created this mosaic of Saturn and its rings. Cassini plunged into the Saturnian atmosphere on Sept. 15 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/Mindaugas Macijauskas)

But Cassini’s “legacy discovery,” said Spilker, was the revelation that the tiny icy moon of Enceladus is active, venting water vapor into space from powerful geysers emerging from the moon’s “tiger stripes” — four long fissures in the moon’s south pole. After multiple observations of these geysers and direct sampling of the water particles during flybys, Cassini deduced that the icy space marble hides a warm, salty ocean.

“What Cassini will be remembered for — its legacy discovery — will be the geysers coming from Enceladus with the ocean with the potential for life. It’s a paradigm shift.” — Linda J. Spilker, Cassini project scientist, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Sept. 14, 2017.

Alongside Jupiter’s moon Europa, Enceladus has become a prime destination for future explorations of life beyond Earth. Its subsurface ocean contains all the ingredients for life as we know it and Cassini was the mission that inadvertently discovered its biological potential. So now we know about this potential, Spilker is keen to see a dedicated life-hunting mission that could go to Enceladus, perhaps even landing on the surface to return samples to Earth.

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Artist impression of Cassini flying through Enceladus’ water plumes venting from the moon’s south pole (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

As Enceladus is much smaller and less massive than Europa, its gravity is lower, meaning that landing on the surface is an easier task. Also, the radiation surrounding Saturn is much less aggressive than Jupiter’s radiation belts, meaning less radiation shielding is needed for spacecraft going to Saturn’s moons.

But if we ever send a surface mission to Enceladus (or any of the icy moons in the outer solar system), the planetary protection requirements will be extreme.

“If any life were found on these moons, it would be microbial,” said Larry Soderblom, an interdisciplinary scientist on the Cassini mission. “Some [terrestrial] bacteria are very resilient and can survive in hot acid-reducing environments. They can be tenacious. We have to make sure we don’t leave any of these kinds of Earthly bacteria on these promising moons.”

Soderblom has a unique perspective on solar system exploration. His career spans a huge number of NASA missions since the 1960’s, including Mariner 6, 7, 9, Viking, Voyager, Galileo, Magellan, Mars Pathfinder, the Mars Exploration Rovers, Deep Space 1, to name a few. While chatting to me under the shade of a tree on the JPL campus, he pointed out that the outer solar system was seen as a very different place over half a century ago.

“When I started to explore the solar system as a young guy just out of graduate school, our minds-eye view of the outer solar system was pretty bleak,” he remembered. “We expected lifeless, dead, battered moons with no geologic activity.”

After being involved with many outer solar system missions, this view has radically changed. Not only have we discovered entire oceans on Enceladus and Europa, there’s active volcanoes on Jupiter’s tortured moon Io, an atmosphere on Titan sporting its own methane cycle and surface lakes of methane and ethane. Other moons show hints of extensive subsurface oceans too, including distant Triton, a moon of Neptune. When NASA’s New Horizons flew past Pluto in 2015, the robotic spacecraft didn’t see a barren, dull rock as all the artistic impressions that came before seemed to suggest. The dwarf planet is a surprisingly dynamic place with a rich geologic history.

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With a diameter of only 313 miles, tiny Enceladus is a surprising powerhouse of internal activity. Subsurface oceans are heated through tidal interactions with Saturn (and, possibly, radioactivity in its rocky core), forcing water through its south pole fissures (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Sending our robotic emissaries to these distant and unforgiving places has revolutionized our understanding of the solar system and our place in it. Rather than the gas and ice giant moons being dull, barren and static, our exploration has revealed a rich bounty of geologic variety. Not only that, we’re almost spoilt for choices for our next giant leap of scientific discovery.

Missions like Cassini are essential for science. Before that spacecraft entered Saturn orbit 13 years ago, we had a very limited understanding of what the Saturnian system was all about. Now we can confidently say that there’s a tiny moon there with incredible biological potential — Enceladus truly is Cassini’s legacy discovery that will keep our imaginations alive until we land on the ice to explore its alien ocean.

For more on my trip to JPL, read my two HowStuffWorks articles:

Why Cassini Crashed: Protecting Icy Moon Enceladus at All Costs

What Epic Space Missions Like Cassini Teach Us About Ourselves

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Weird Form of Alien Life May Be Possible on Saturn’s Moon Titan

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Artist’s impression of Titan’s surface and atmosphere (credit: Benjamin de Bivort, debivort.org / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Titan is a very strange moon.

Orbiting the ringed gas giant Saturn, Titan is the only moon in the solar system that sports a thick atmosphere. Although the moon is extremely cold, its atmosphere is very dynamic; exhibiting seasons, precipitation and even creating vast seas.

Although this may sound very much like Earth’s atmosphere — where water evaporates from the oceans, condenses as clouds and precipitates as rain, forming rivers that flow back into the oceans — Titan’s atmosphere is dominated by a methane cycle, not a water cycle.

This may sound like the antithesis of Earth’s life-giving chemistry, but astrobiologists have been gradually finding clues to Titan’s habitable potential and today (July 28) scientists have announced the confirmation of a key molecule that could be the proverbial backbone to a weird kind of “alternative” alien life on Titan — based not on liquid water, but on liquid methane.

“The presence of vinyl cyanide in an environment with liquid methane suggests the intriguing possibility of chemical processes that are analogous to those important for life on Earth,” said astrochemistry researcher Maureen Palmer, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Palmer is lead author of a study published in Science Advances describing the detection of vinyl cyanide (also known as acrylonitrile) at Titan using the awesome power of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile.

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B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF); NASA

Previous observations of Titan’s atmosphere by NASA’s Cassini mission and chemical modeling of the moon’s surface have hinted that it is the ideal environment for vinyl cyanide to form. But it was only when analysis of archived data collected by ALMA between February to May 2014 was carried out that its presence was confirmed. And there appears to be a lot of the stuff.

So what is vinyl cyanide and why is it so important?

The molecule (C2H3CN) has the ability to form membranes and, if found in liquid pools of hydrocarbons on Titan’s surface, it could form a kind of lipid-based cell membrane analog of living organisms on Earth. In other words, this molecule could stew in primordial pools of hydrocarbons and arrange itself in such a way to create a “protocell” that is “stable and flexible in liquid methane,” said Jonathan Lunine (Cornell University) who, in 2015, was a member of the team who modeled vinyl cyanide and found that it might form cell membranes.

“This is a step forward in understanding whether Titan’s methane seas might host an exotic form of life,” Lunine, who wasn’t a member part of the team that announced today’s results, said in a statement.

Life As We Don’t Know It

When studying Titan’s nitrogen-rich atmosphere, ALMA detected three unambiguous millimeter-wavelength signals produced by vinyl cyanide that originated from 200 kilometers above Titan’s surface. It is well known that the moon’s atmosphere is a vast chemical factory; the energy of the sun and particles from space convert simple organic molecules into more complex chemistry. These chemicals then cycle down to Titans rich hydrocarbon surface.

But speculating about life on Titan is a hard task. The moon’s atmosphere is often compared with that of early Earth’s, but there are some huge differences. Titan is crazy-cold, averaging around 95 Kelvin (that’s an incredible -178 degrees Celsius or -288 degrees Fahrenheit); at no time in history has Earth’s atmosphere been that cold. Also, it’s thought that early Earth had large quantities of carbon dioxide in its atmosphere, Titan does not. As for water? Frozen. Oxygen? Forget about it.

So this research underpins our quest to find the chemistry of life as we DON’T know it, using the building blocks that follow the pattern of life that we do know, but swapping out key components (like water) to see if an analog of life’s chemistry can under very alien conditions.

“Saturn’s moon, Enceladus is the place to search for life like us, life that depends on — and exists in — liquid water,” said Lunine. “Titan, on the other hand, is the place to go to seek the outer limits of life — can some exotic type of life begin and evolve in a truly alien environment, that of liquid methane?”

Perhaps it’s time for a return mission to Titan’s extreme surface.