Com­plex or­ganic mol­e­cules found on Ence­ladus

Chemical Industry Digest - - Science Pages -

Sci­en­tists have found that large, car­bon-rich or­ganic mol­e­cules are ejected from cracks in the icy sur­face of Saturn’s moon Ence­ladus. They did this by us­ing mass spec­trom­e­try data from NASA’s Cassini space­craft.

South­west Re­search In­sti­tute sci­en­tists think chem­i­cal re­ac­tions be­tween the moon’s rocky core and warm wa­ter from its sub­sur­face ocean are linked to th­ese com­plex mol­e­cules, as per the re­port on Na­ture.

Prior to its de­or­bit in Septem­ber of 2017, Cassini sam­pled the plume of ma­te­rial emerg­ing from the sub­sur­face of Ence­ladus. The Cos­mic Dust An­a­lyzer (CDA) and the SwRIled Ion and Neu­tral Mass Spec­trom­e­ter (INMS) made mea­sure­ments, both within the plume and Saturn’s E-ring, which is formed by plume ice grains es­cap­ing Ence­ladus’ grav­ity.

“Even af­ter its end, the Cassini space­craft con­tin­ues to teach us about the po­ten­tial of Ence­ladus to ad­vance the field of astro­bi­ol­ogy in an ocean world,” Dr. Glein, SwRI’s space sci­en­tist said.

Dur­ing Cassini’s close flyby of Ence­ladus on Oct. 28, 2015, INMS de­tected molec­u­lar hy­dro­gen as the space­craft flew through the plume. Pre­vi­ous fly­bys pro­vided ev­i­dence for a global sub­sur­face ocean re­sid­ing above a rocky core. Molec­u­lar hy­dro­gen in the plume is thought to form by the geo­chem­i­cal in­ter­ac­tion be­tween wa­ter and rocks in hy­dro­ther­mal en­vi­ron­ments.

“Hy­dro­gen pro­vides a source of chem­i­cal en­ergy sup­port­ing mi­crobes that live in the Earth’s oceans near hy­dro­ther­mal vents,” said SwRI’s Dr. Hunter Waite, INMS prin­ci­pal in­ves­ti­ga­tor. “Once you have iden­ti­fied a po­ten­tial food source for mi­crobes, the next ques­tion to ask is ‘what is the na­ture of the com­plex or­gan­ics in the ocean?’ This pa­per rep­re­sents the first step in that un­der­stand­ing—com­plex­ity in the or­ganic chem­istry be­yond our ex­pec­ta­tions!”

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