‘Icy plumes’ shooting from Saturn’s moon Enceladus could hold key to alien life

New discoveries about the behaviour of ice could help detect life on Enceladus (Picture: NASA / SWNS)

One of Saturn’s moons is set to rise to the fore of efforts to find extraterrestrial organisms within our solar system.

Scientists have developed a machine which they say could detect traces of life in geyser-like jets of ice which spew from the surface of Enceladus.

Evidence has previously been found of a vast salty ocean beneath the moon’s frozen shell, with conditions that have given astrobiologists hope.

Any living organisms would likely be destroyed in the plumes, which fire at around 800 miles per hour onto the surface of a moon that never gets warmer than −198 °C.

But amino acids – one of the building blocks of carbon-based lifeforms – could survive the impact, researchers from the University of California in San Diego have found.

Team lead 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.’

An artist’s impression of ice plumes on Enceladus, a mid-sized satellite of Saturn (Picture: Getty Images/Science Photo Libra)

His team created the unique machine to measure the impact of high velocities on droplets of ice.

Analysis of the droplets’ behaviour indicates that amino acids trapped inside them could endure impact speeds up to 4.2 kilometres per second (9400 miles per hour) without disintegrating.

Prof Continetti continued: ‘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.

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

There is hope the discovery could be used on any future probes to Saturn.

It could also help the Europa Clipper mission to one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa, which has a similar icy composition to Enceladus.

Professor Continetti added: ‘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.’

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