Article image

Life-sparking energy source found on Enceladus hints at alien life on Saturn's moon

NASA’s Cassini mission has revealed the presence of vital components for life on Saturn’s icy moon, Enceladus. Based on data from Cassini, experts have identified crucial organic compounds and a potent energy source, hinting at the moon’s potential to support life.

Hydrogen cyanide 

The team has detected the presence of hydrogen cyanide – a molecule that is key to the origin of life – and an abundance of chemical energy sources. 

“The discovery of hydrogen cyanide was particularly exciting, because it’s the starting point for most theories on the origin of life,” said lead author Jonah Peter, a doctoral student at Harvard University who conducted the research while working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Enceladus has long captivated scientists with its massive plume of ice grains and water vapor, known to contain a rich mix of organic compounds. These compounds are crucial for life as we recognize it on Earth. 

The latest research goes beyond previous discoveries, providing solid evidence of hydrogen cyanide. 

“Our work provides further evidence that Enceladus is host to some of the most important molecules for both creating the building blocks of life and for sustaining that life through metabolic reactions,” said Peter. 

“Not only does Enceladus seem to meet the basic requirements for habitability, we now have an idea about how complex biomolecules could form there, and what sort of chemical pathways might be involved.”

Enceladus has great potential for life

The study also sheds light on the ocean beneath Enceladus’s icy surface, which feeds the plume. This hidden ocean holds a potent source of chemical energy that was previously unidentified. 

The discovery of various organic compounds, analogous to those fueling organisms on Earth, suggests a greater potential for life on Enceladus than previously assumed. Because its molecules can be stacked together in many different ways, the study authors refer to hydrogen cyanide as the Swiss army knife of amino acid precursors.

“The more we tried to poke holes in our results by testing alternative models, the stronger the evidence became,” said Peter. “Eventually, it became clear that there is no way to match the plume composition without including hydrogen cyanide.”

In 2017, scientists found indications of methanogenesis chemistry in Enceladus’s ocean, hinting at life-sustaining processes. Methanogenesis, a process that generates methane, possibly played a role in the emergence of life on our planet. 

The recent findings, however, suggest the presence of even more diverse and powerful chemical energy sources.

“If methanogenesis is like a small watch battery, in terms of energy, then our results suggest the ocean of Enceladus might offer something more akin to a car battery, capable of providing a large amount of energy to any life that might be present,” said study co-author Kevin Hand of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Meticulous and convincing analysis 

The research team utilized detailed statistical methods, analyzing data from Cassini’s ion and neutral mass spectrometer. This approach allowed them to discern subtle differences in how various chemical compounds match Cassini’s observations, leading to a refined understanding of Enceladus’s chemical composition.

While the question of whether life exists on Enceladus remains unanswered, the study outlines possible chemical pathways for life that can be explored further in laboratory settings.

“There are many potential puzzle pieces that can be fit together when trying to match the observed data,” said Peter. “We used math and statistical modeling to figure out which combination of puzzle pieces best matches the plume composition and makes the most of the data, without overinterpreting the limited dataset.”

Tom Nordheim, a JPL planetary scientist and co-author of the study, emphasized the ongoing impact of Cassini’s observations, even after the mission’s conclusion in 2017. “Our study demonstrates that while Cassini’s mission has ended, its observations continue to provide us with new insights about Saturn and its moons – including the enigmatic Enceladus,” said Nordheim.

More about Enceladus 

As discussed above, Enceladus, one of Saturn’s many moons, stands out as a celestial body of immense interest to astronomers and astrobiologists alike. This relatively small moon has captured the imagination and curiosity of scientists due to its unique characteristics and potential for harboring life.

Discovery and basic characteristics

William Herschel discovered Enceladus on August 28, 1789. This icy moon, measuring about 500 kilometers in diameter, ranks as the sixth-largest moon of Saturn. Despite its small size, Enceladus plays a significant role in Saturn’s E ring, contributing to its composition.

Enceladus exhibits a diverse range of geological features. Its surface, primarily composed of water ice, reflects sunlight, making it one of the most reflective bodies in the solar system. The moon’s south pole particularly fascinates researchers due to the presence of ‘tiger stripes’, long fractures that emit water vapor and other particles.

Subsurface ocean on Enceladus may support life

Scientists believe that a subsurface ocean of liquid water exists beneath Enceladus’s icy crust. This ocean likely interacts with the moon’s rocky core, leading to hydrothermal activity. Such conditions could potentially support microbial life, drawing parallels to the hydrothermal vents found in Earth’s oceans.

Enceladus is famous for its dramatic plumes of water vapor and ice particles. These plumes, first observed by the Cassini spacecraft, erupt from the tiger stripes and reach heights of hundreds of kilometers. They provide compelling evidence of the moon’s geological activity and the existence of a subsurface ocean.

Future study and exploration

The discovery of organic compounds in Enceladus’s plumes, hydrogen cyanide most recently, has intensified the debate about the moon’s habitability. NASA and other space agencies are considering future missions to Enceladus to search for signs of life and to further explore its intriguing features.

In summary, Enceladus, with its active geology, potential subsurface ocean, and organic-rich plumes, remains a prime candidate in the search for extraterrestrial life. Its mysteries continue to inspire and challenge our understanding of the solar system, making it a focal point for future exploratory missions.

The study is published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates.

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day