Cassini Tastes Organic Material

This isn’t a Whole Foods ad. NASA’s Cassini spacecraft “tasted” a surprising composition of organic materials erupting from Saturn’s moon, Enceladus, during a close flyby on March 12:

New heat maps of the surface show higher temperatures than previously known in the south polar region, with hot tracks running the length of giant fissures. Additionally, scientists say the organics “taste and smell” like some of those found in a comet. The jets themselves harmlessly peppered Cassini, exerting measurable torque on the spacecraft, and providing an indirect measure of the plume density.

“A completely unexpected surprise is that the chemistry of Enceladus, what’s coming out from inside, resembles that of a comet,” said Hunter Waite, principal investigator for the Cassini Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “To have primordial material coming out from inside a Saturn moon raises many questions on the formation of the Saturn system.”

“Enceladus is by no means a comet. Comets have tails and orbit the sun, and Enceladus’ activity is powered by internal heat while comet activity is powered by sunlight. Enceladus’ brew is like carbonated water with an essence of natural gas,” said Waite.

The Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer saw a much higher density of volatile gases, water vapor, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, as well as organic materials, some 20 times denser than expected. This dramatic increase in density was evident as the spacecraft flew over the area of the plumes.

The food metaphors don’t stop with “Whole Foods.” Apparently we have a “recipe for life:”

“Enceladus has got warmth, water and organic chemicals, some of the essential building blocks needed for life,” Dennis Matson, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in the statement. “We have quite a recipe for life on our hands, but we have yet to find the final ingredient, liquid water.”

Saturn’s moons have long been of interest to scientists, who say the largest, Titan, may resemble an early version of Earth, providing clues to how the planet developed. Enceladus, the sixth-largest moon, had already surprised scientists when in 2005 they detected a “significant atmosphere.”

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