Enceladus Could Be a Cosmic Shaker for the Cocktail of Life

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

A little frozen Saturn moon, with a diameter that could easily fit inside the state of New Mexico, holds some big promises for the possibility of finding basic alien life in our solar system.

Enceladus is often overshadowed by its larger distant cousin, Europa, which orbits Jupiter and the Jovian moon’s awesome potential has been widely publicized. But Enceladus has one thing Europa doesn’t — it has been visited very closely by a robotic space probe that could take a sniff of its famous water vapor plumes. And this week, there was much excitement about another facet of the moon’s complex subsurface chemistry, thanks to analysis carried out on data gathered by NASA’s Cassini mission.

But before we get into why this new discovery is so cool, let’s take a very quick look at the other signs of Enceladus’ life-giving potential.

The Cocktail Of Life

Being living, breathing creatures on a habitable planet, it may not come as a surprise to you that for biology to evolve, it needs a few basic ingredients. Liquid water is a definite requirement, of course. Heat also helps. Throw some organic chemistry into the mix and we have a party.

Enceladus, however, is a tiny icy globe, there’s no sign of liquid water on its surface. But when Cassini arrived at Saturn in 2004, Enceladus revealed some of its best-kept secrets. Firstly, it may be a smooth ice ball, but the moon has a large quantity of water under its surface. This water even escapes as geysers, through fissures in its icy crust, producing stunning plumes that eject material hundreds of miles high and into Saturn’s rings.

Before Cassini was launched to Saturn, we had little clue about Enceladus’ watery potential — though this finding explained why Enceladus appeared so bright and how it contributes material to Saturn’s E-ring. Fortunately, the spacecraft has an instrument on board — a mass spectrometer — that could be used to “taste” the watery goodness of these plumes. During its Enceladus flybys, Cassini was able to fly through the plumes, revealing a surprisingly rich chemical cocktail — including a high concentration of organic chemistry.

It’s as if all the building blocks of life have been thrown into a small icy cocoon, shaken up and gently heated from within.

Now, another fascinating discovery has been made. Further analysis of Cassini data from its last 2015 plume fly-through, molecular hydrogen has been detected and planetary scientists are more than a little excited to add this to Enceladus’ habitable repertoire.

Deep In The Enceladus Abyss

“Hydrogen is a source of chemical energy for microbes that live in the Earth’s oceans near hydrothermal vents,” said Hunter Waite, principal investigator of Cassini’s Ion Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS) at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), in a statement on Thursday (April 13). “Our results indicate the same chemical energy source is present in the ocean of Enceladus.”

This hydrogen could be a byproduct of chemical reactions going on between the moon’s rocky core and the warm water surrounding it. And there’s a lot of hydrogen gas being vented, probably enough to sustain basic lifeforms deep in the Enceladus abyss.

“The amount of molecular hydrogen we detected is high enough to support microbes similar to those that live near hydrothermal vents on Earth,” added co-author Christopher Glein, who specializes in extraterrestrial chemical oceanography, also of SwRI. “If similar organisms are present in Enceladus, they could ‘burn’ the hydrogen to obtain energy for chemosynthesis, which could conceivably serve as a foundation for a larger ecosystem.”

Yes, we’re talking alien microbes. (Also, “extraterrestrial chemical oceanography” — oceans on other worlds! — is one hell of a mind-blowing topic to specialize in, just sayin’.) And did he mention “larger ecosystem”? Why yes! Yes he did.

So, in short, we know Enceladus has a liquid water ocean. We know that it has an internal heat source (hence the liquid oceans). We also know there’s organic chemistry. And now there’s solid hints that there’s water-rock interactions going on that terrestrial microbes living at Earth’s ocean vents like to munch on. If that’s not a huge, blinking neon sign pointing at Enceladus, saying: “We need a surface mission here!” I don’t know what is.

Although the researchers are keen to emphasize that alien microbes have not been found (because Cassini isn’t capable of looking for life), the universe has given us a moon-sized Petri dish where an “ecosystem” may have taken hold. All the ingredients are there, wouldn’t it be cool to find out if Enceladus could be another place in the solar system where life may be hanging out?

There was also some great news about Europa’s habitable potential this week, but you can go here for that piece of cosmic awesomeness.

Want to know more about Cassini’s final months at Saturn, check out my recent Space.com article on the commencement of the veteran mission’s Grand Finale.

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Smallest ‘Super-Earth’ Discovered With an Atmosphere — but It’s No Oasis

MPIA

For the first time, astronomers have detected an atmosphere around a small (and likely) rocky exoplanet orbiting a star only 39 light-years away. Although atmospheres have been detected on larger alien worlds, this is the smallest world to date that has been found sporting atmospheric gases.

Alas, Gliese (GJ) 1132b isn’t a place we’d necessarily call “habitable”; it orbits its red dwarf a little too close to have an atmosphere anything like Earth’s, so you’d have to be very optimistic if you expect to find life (as we know it) camping there. But this is still a huge discovery that is creating a lot of excitement — especially as this exo-atmosphere has apparently evolved intact so close to a star.

The atmosphere was discovered by an international team of astronomers using the 2.2 meter ESO/MPG telescope at La Silla Observatory in Chile. As the exoplanet orbited in front of the star from our perspective (known as a “transit”), the researchers were able to deduce the physical size of the world by the fraction of starlight it blocked. The exoplanet is around 40 percent bigger than Earth (and 60 percent more massive) making it a so-called “super-Earth.”

Through precision observations of the infrared light coming from the exoplanet during the 1.6 day transits, the astronomers noticed that the planet looked larger at certain wavelengths of light than others. In short, this means that the planet has an atmosphere that blocks certain infrared wavelengths, but allows other wavelengths to pass straight through. Researchers of the University of Cambridge and the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy then used this information to model certain chemical compositions, leading to the conclusion that the atmosphere could be a thick with methane or water vapor.

Judging by the exoplanet’s close proximity to its star, this could mean that the planet is a water world, with an extremely dense and steamy atmosphere. But this is just one of the possibilities.

“The presence of the atmosphere is a reason for cautious optimism,” writes a Max Planck Institute for Astronomy news release. “M dwarfs are the most common types of star, and show high levels of activity; for some set-ups, this activity (in the shape of flares and particle streams) can be expected to blow away nearby planets’ atmospheres. GJ 1132b provides a hopeful counterexample of an atmosphere that has endured for billion of years (that is, long enough for us to detect it). Given the great number of M dwarf stars, such atmospheres could mean that the preconditions for life are quite common in the universe.”

To definitively work out what chemicals are in GJ 1132b’s atmosphere, we may not be waiting that long. New techniques for deriving high-resolution spectra of exoplanetary atmospheres are in the works and this exoplanet will be high on the list of priorities in the hunt for extraterrestrial biosignatures. (For more on this, you can check out a recent article I wrote for HowStuffWorks.)

Although we’ll not be taking a vacation to GJ 1132b any time soon, the discovery of an atmosphere around such a small alien world will boost hopes that similar sized super-Earths will also host atmospheres, despite living close to red dwarf stars that are known for their flaring activity. If atmospheres can persist, particularly on exoplanets orbiting within a star’s so-called habitable zone, then there really should be cause for optimism that there really might be an “Earth 2.0” out there orbiting one of the many red dwarfs in our galaxy.