How do you know if there is life on Enceladus?

(ORDO NEWS) — A team of researchers from the University of Arizona believes that using an orbiting space probe, you can find out if there is microbial life on Enceladus.

In an article published in the journal Planetary Science, the scientists describe how a hypothetical mission could answer this question.

Enceladus was first surveyed in 1980 by NASA‘s Voyager 1 spacecraft. Then this moon of Saturn looked like a small, not very interesting “snowball”.

Later, between 2005 and 2017, NASA’s Cassini probe flew over the Saturn system and studied its complex rings and moons.

Scientists were stunned when Cassini discovered that under the thick ice of Enceladus was a warm ocean of salty water that emits methane.

In their paper, the researchers report that a visit to an orbiting spacecraft is all it takes to know for sure if microbes inhabit the Enceladus ocean.

Scientists have developed realistic missions that would use upgraded instruments to sample plumes or even land on the lunar surface.

“By simulating the data that a more trained and advanced orbiter would collect from plumes alone, our team showed that this approach would be sufficient to confidently determine whether there is life in the ocean of Enceladus without actually examining the depths of the moon,” the researchers say.

The research team modeled their calculations based on the hypothesis that Enceladus hosts methanogens, microbes that can live in oceanic hydrothermal vents similar to those found on Earth.

The researchers calculated what the total mass of methanogens would be on Enceladus, as well as the likelihood that their cells and other organic molecules could be ejected through the plumes.

“We were surprised to find that the hypothetical abundance of cells would correspond to the biomass of only one whale in the global ocean of Enceladus,” said first author Antonin Affholder. “The biosphere of Enceladus can be very sparse.”

However, the models show that instruments on the spacecraft could pick up organic molecules or cells in the plumes.

“Our study shows that if there is a biosphere in the ocean of Enceladus, signs of its existence can be detected in the plume material without the need to land or drill wells,” Affholder said.

“But for such a mission, the orbiter would need to fly through the plume several times to collect lots of oceanic material.”

The document contains recommendations on the minimum amount of material that must be collected from plumes to search for both microbial cells and certain organic molecules.


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