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Extraterrestrial life can be detected from a single grain of ice floating in space

Exploring the icy moons of Saturn and Jupiter has long been a focal point for scientists in the quest for extraterrestrial life. According to new research, even microscopic amounts of cellular material ejected from moons or exoplanets could reveal signs of life to the instruments on missions slated for the near future.

This fascinating study, conducted by researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle and Freie Universität Berlin, offers promising insights for these upcoming exploration missions.

Microscopic breakthrough in the search for extraterrestrial life

Lead author Fabian Klenner, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington, emphasizes the significance of their work.

“For the first time we have shown that even a tiny fraction of cellular material could be identified by a mass spectrometer onboard a spacecraft,” Klenner explained.

“Our results give us more confidence that using upcoming instruments, we will be able to detect lifeforms similar to those on Earth, which we increasingly believe could be present on ocean-bearing moons,” he continued.

This breakthrough bolsters the hope of detecting life forms on ocean-bearing moons and extrasolar planets using sophisticated instruments designed for upcoming space missions.

Searching for life on solar system moons

This study is particularly relevant in light of the Cassini mission’s findings, which concluded in 2017. Cassini discovered plumes emanating from Saturn’s moon Enceladus, indicating the presence of gas and ice grains.

The upcoming Europa Clipper mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, scheduled for October, aims to carry more advanced instruments for in-depth exploration.

In preparation for the Europa Clipper mission, the researchers conducted experiments to simulate what these instruments might encounter. The challenge of replicating the high-speed collision of ice grains with a spacecraft led the team to adopt a novel approach.

They disintegrated liquid water into droplets in a vacuum and used a laser to analyze the material, simulating the conditions that spacecraft instruments will face.

Simulating the cosmos in Alaskan waters

Their experiments revealed that future space missions could detect cellular material in ice grains. Specifically, the study focused on Sphingopyxis alaskensis, a bacterium found in Alaskan waters, known for its small size and ability to thrive in cold, nutrient-scarce environments. These characteristics make it an ideal model for potential life on icy moons.

Klenner highlights the importance of studying individual ice grains. “They are extremely small, so they are in theory capable of fitting into ice grains that are emitted from an ocean world like Enceladus or Europa.”

The study found that analyzing single grains where biomaterial may be concentrated is more effective than examining a larger, more diluted sample.

Phosphate + water = life on Enceladus?

Further bolstering the case for life on these moons, a recent study led by the same researchers found evidence of phosphate on Enceladus. This discovery, coupled with the presence of water, other salts, and carbon-based organic materials, increases the likelihood of these celestial bodies supporting life.

The study also theorizes how bacterial cells might integrate into icy material. If bacterial cells are encased in a lipid membrane, they could form a “skin” on the ocean’s surface, similar to sea scum on Earth.

When the ocean is connected to the surface, the vacuum of space could cause the subsurface ocean to boil, incorporating cellular material into ice grains.

Klenner explains the significance of these findings, saying, “We here describe a plausible scenario for how bacterial cells can, in theory, be incorporated into icy material that is formed from liquid water on Enceladus or Europa and then gets emitted into space.”

Looking for lipids with the Europa Clipper mission

The Europa Clipper’s SUrface Dust Analyzer represents a leap forward in space exploration instruments, capable of detecting negatively charged ions and better suited for identifying fatty acids and lipids. Klenner finds the prospect of searching for lipids more exciting than searching for DNA’s building blocks due to their stability.

Senior author Frank Postberg from Freie Universität Berlin concludes, “With suitable instrumentation, such as the SUrface Dust Analyzer on NASA’s Europa Clipper space probe, it might be easier than we thought to find life, or traces of it, on icy moons.”

This optimistic outlook hinges on the presence of life and its incorporation into ice grains from subsurface water reservoirs, paving the way for exciting discoveries in the search for extraterrestrial life.

Implications for finding life on icy moons

In summary, this important and timely research provides astronomers with new tools in the quest for extraterrestrial life. This discovery increases the potential of discovering life forms on the icy moons of Saturn and Jupiter.

By innovatively simulating space conditions and focusing on the minutiae of ice grains, the international team of scientists has paved the way for future missions to explore these distant moons more thoroughly and to detect the faintest whispers of life beyond Earth.

This leap forward in space exploration underscores the exciting possibility that, with the right instruments and a keen understanding of where to look, finding traces of life in the vastness of space might be closer within our reach than ever before.

The research was a collaborative effort involving an international team from various esteemed institutions. These include The Open University in the U.K., NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the University of Leipzig.

The full study was published in the journal Science Advances.


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