Data from NASA’s Cassini mission has found new kinds of organic compounds, which have ingredients for amino acids–the key building blocks of life– from the icy plumes of Saturn’s moon Enceladus.
According to NASA’s JPL mission, the material is ejected from Enceladus’ core and mixes with water from the moon’s subsurface ocean and released into space as water vapour and ice grains. These newly discovered molecules were condensed onto the ice grains.
After a detailed study, scientists have determined these molecules to be nitrogen and oxygen-bearing compounds, which are the key building blocks of life. According to NASA’s press statement, scientists believe Enceladus’ hydrothermal vents are operating in a way similar to how these vents works inside Earth’s oceans. These vents on Saturn’s moon are supplying the energy that leads to the production of amino acids.
“If the conditions are right, these molecules coming from the deep ocean of Enceladus could be on the same reaction pathway as we see here on Earth. We don’t yet know if amino acids are needed for life beyond Earth, but finding the molecules that form amino acids is an important piece of the puzzle,” said Nozair Khawaja, who led the research team of the Free University of Berlin.
These research findings were published on October 2 in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The ice grains were then analyzed by Cassini’s Cosmic Dust Analyser.
Last year’s the team had discovered insoluble complex organic molecules, which were believed to be floating on the surface of Enceladus’ ocean. “Here we are finding smaller and soluble organic building blocks – potential precursors for amino acids and other ingredients required for life on Earth,” said co-author Jon Hillier.
The Cassini Project Scientist Linda Spilker had said last year, that Saturn moon Enceladus could be potentially habitable. “Personally, I would like to go back to Saturn,” Spilker was quoted saying at the World Economic Forum in Davos last year. She had added that discoveries Cassini made about Enceladus made a paradigm change in how scientists approached search for alien life.