Reanalysis of data from the Cassini spacecraft indicates that molecules containing methanol, ethane and oxygen are present in plumes of gas ejected from Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The paper reporting this isNature astronomyPublished in
In 2005, the Cassini spacecraft first detected a large plume of material being ejected into space from Enceladus’ southern hemisphere. These plumes are believed to originate from the subsurface ocean through cracks in Enceladus’ icy surface. Analysis of data collected by the Ion and Neutral Mass Measurement (INMS) instrument aboard Cassini during flybys in 2011 and 2012 revealed the presence of water, carbon dioxide, methane and ammonia in the samples, and the presence of molecular hydrogen became evident.
Now, Jonah Peter and his colleagues have reanalyzed the data processed by the INMS instrument team and compared it to a large library of known mass spectra. Using statistical techniques to analyze billions of possible combinations of substances in the column, Peter and others were able to identify the hydrocarbons namely hydrogen cyanide (HCN), acetylene (C2H2), propylene (C3H6), ethane (C2H6), trace amounts of alcohol (methanol) and molecular oxygen.
Peter and others suggest that this compositionally diverse reservoir of chemicals beneath Enceladus’ surface may be ripe for a habitable environment, supporting microbial communities. However, the authors point out that the ability of these compounds to support life on Enceladus depends largely on how diluted they are in the ocean beneath Enceladus’ surface.
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