It seems that in a posthumous gift to humanity, the celebrated Cassini spacecraft may have revealed that Enceladus, one of saturn's great moons, holds the building blocks of life.
Cassini on Ice
The Cassini spacecraft first passed Enceladus in 2005, collecting samples of ice grains from surface geysers. Initial findings demonstrated small organic molecules, much like those found here on earth. But this alone, although exciting, was nothing compared to what came next.
Further analysis of recent data hints at the existence of large organic molecules, which could have only been created by complicated chemical processes that are also instrumental to life on earth. The European Space Agency had this to say;
'This is the most recent in a long series of discoveries made by Cassini that have been painting Enceladus as a potentially habitable water-world.'Life beneath the Ice
It has long thought that worlds rich in water may be the key to life. In fact, most theories explaining the origin of life on earth rely on the interaction of complex organic molecules within a medium of water. So it comes as no surprise that water worlds found in deep space may exhibit molecules and processes similar to what likely sparked life on Earth.
When it comes to Enceladus, the news is even more exciting. It is very possible that the molecules found are actually much smaller than what exists on, or below the surface. And if that is the case, we are forced to wonder what processes are creating them.
According to team leader Frank Postberg, something is happening at warm hydrothermal vents beneath the icy tundra;
“In my opinion the fragments we found are of hydrothermal origin, having been processed inside the hydrothermally active core of Enceladus: in the high pressures and warm temperatures we expect there, it is possible that complex organic molecules can arise'And given that we know life thrives around vents in our own oceans, this is exciting news indeed.
So it may be that in its siren song, Cassini has shown us that life may exist far away, beneath the surface of an ice world.