The ongoing deep dive into data from NASA’s Cassini mission has found smaller and soluble organic building blocks on Saturn’s ocean-moon Enceladus – potential precursors for amino acids and other ingredients required for life on Earth. The findings shows that Enceladus’ ocean has reactive building blocks in abundance, and it’s another green light in the investigation of the habitability of Enceladus, said co-author Frank Postberg, about new kinds of organic compounds, the ingredients of amino acids, that have been detected in the Enceladus’ towering plumes.
“We see so much more, and closer up, and we’re getting new and more interesting puzzles,” said NASA’s Ames Research Center’s Jeff Cuzzi, who’s been studying Saturn’s rings since the 1970s and is the interdisciplinary scientist for rings on the Cassini mission. “We are just settling into the next phase, which is building new, detailed models of ring evolution—including the new revelation from Cassini data that the rings are much younger than Saturn.”
“We are, yet again, blown away by Enceladus. Previously we’d only identified the simplest organic molecules containing a few carbon atoms, but even that was very intriguing,” said Southwest Research Institute’s Christopher Glein, a space scientist specializing in extraterrestrial chemical oceanography in June of 2018.
Radio signals from two NASA probes, Cassini at Saturn (above) and Juno at Jupiter, is allowing researchers to pierce the swirling clouds that hide the deep interiors of Jupiter and Saturn, where crushing pressure transforms matter into states unknown on Earth –“the two planets are more complex than we thought,” says Ravit Helled, a planetary scientist at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. “Giant planets are not simple balls of hydrogen and helium.”
Knowing Cassini’s days were numbered, its mission team went for gold. The spacecraft flew where it was never designed to fly. For the first time, it probed Saturn’s magnetized environment, flew through icy, rocky ring particles and sniffed the atmosphere in the 1,200-mile-wide (2,000-kilometer-wide) gap between the rings and the cloud tops. Not only did the flight path push the spacecraft to its limits, the new findings illustrate how powerful and agile the instruments were.