Saturn moon Enceladus ingredients for life discovered in Cassini data

Saturn's moon Enceladus has ingredients for life, researchers have announced. The discovery was made by NASA's Cassini spacecraft, which was deliberately crashed into Saturn last year after running low on fuel. Researchers analyzing data gathered by Cassini before its demise reveal large and complex organic compounds present in the Enceladus's icy plumes — that is, the essential building blocks for life.

The discovery was detailed in a newly published study in the journal Nature. In it, researchers reveal that data gathered by Cassini show "concentrated and complex macromolecular organic material with molecular masses above 200 atomic mass units." These compounds were found in emitted ice grains with researchers explaining that they "suggest the presence of a thin organic-rich film on top of the oceanic water table."

The data was acquired by a pair of mass spectrometers on the Cassini spacecraft, one being the Cosmic Dust Analyzer, the other being the Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer. Both tools measured materials from within Saturn's E ring, as well as inside of an icy plume ejected from the moon. It's a milestone discovery beyond what the spacecraft was designed for, adding Enceladus to the list of celestial bodies where researchers can look for life.

Researchers were already aware of the presence small organic molecules, among them being methane. However, the detection of large, complex organic compounds caught researchers by surprise. According to the study, the newly revealed molecules are "orders of magnitude" larger than previously detected compounds, featuring carbon atom chains linked to oxygen and hydrogen, as well as aromatics.

Perhaps more tantalizing is the fact that some molecules were detected but couldn't be analyzed by Cassini's instruments. The reason for this isn't clear, but could be due to the detected molecules merely being small parts of even larger compounds — revealing that even greater discoveries may be in the moon's future.

The full study is available here.