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Scientists Develop Machine To Study Ice Plumes On Enceladus For Signs Of Life

Saturn's Moon Enceladus Emerges as Promising Target in Search for Extraterrestrial Life
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One of Saturn’s moons may be a prime target in the search for life elsewhere in the solar system, scientists reveal.

A unique machine has been built that will test Saturn and Jupiter’s moons for signs of life in a mission next year.

One of Saturn’s moons may be a prime target in the search for life elsewhere in the solar system, scientists reveal. NASA/UNSPLASH

Water, energy and organic material are the crucial elements for life elsewhere in the universe.

Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus is an ocean world that contains all three, making it a prime target in the search for life.

During its 20-year mission, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft discovered that ice plumes spew from Enceladus’ surface at approximately 800 miles per hour.

These plumes provide an excellent opportunity to collect samples which will help the team to uncover whether the planet is habitable.

There was fear that anything contained in the plumes would be destroyed due to the incredible speed they travel at but researchers from the University of California, San Diego, have discovered that these ice plumes can be studied, as the amino acids within them are able to survive the impact of these extreme speeds.

Professor Robert Continetti said: “To get an idea of what kind of life may be possible in the solar system, you want to know there hasn’t been a lot of molecular fragmentation in the sampled ice grains, so you can get that fingerprint of whatever it is that makes it a self-contained life form.

“Our work shows that this is possible with the ice plumes of Enceladus.”

To get their results, published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team created a machine called an aerosol impact spectrometer which measures the impact of high velocities on particles.

They tested the machine by pushing water through a needle at a high voltage and then freezing the droplets in a vacuum.

The mass and charge of these droplets were then measured, and the results were analyzed.

They discovered that amino acids can be detected with limited fragmentation up to impact velocities of 4.2 km /s.

Professor Continetti added: “This apparatus is the only one of its kind in the world that can select single particles and accelerate or decelerate them to chosen final velocities.

One of Saturn’s moons may be a prime target in the search for life elsewhere in the solar system, scientists reveal. NASA/UNSPLASH

“From several micron diameters down to hundreds of nanometres, in a variety of materials, we’re able to examine particle behavior, such as how they scatter or how their structures change upon impact.”

In 2024 NASA will launch the Europa Clipper, which will travel to Jupiter.

Europa, one of Jupiter’s largest moons, is another ocean world and has a similar icy composition to Enceladus.

There is hope that the Clipper, or any future probes to Saturn, will be able to point to whether life exists on these moons if the particles can survive the journey.

Professor Continetti continued: “The implications this has for detecting life elsewhere in the solar system without missions to the surface of these ocean-world moons is very exciting, but our work goes beyond biosignatures in ice grains.

“It has implications for fundamental chemistry as well. We are excited by the prospect of following in the footsteps of Harold Urey and Stanley Miller, founding faculty at UC San Diego in looking at the formation of the building blocks of life from chemical reactions activated by ice grain impact.”


Produced in association with SWNS Talker

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