NASA Finds Ingredients for Life at Saturn’s Moon Enceladus

Video Caption: NASA’s Cassini spacecraft discovered hydrogen in the plume of gas and icy particles spraying from Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The discovery means the small, icy moon — which has a global ocean under its surface — has a source of chemical energy that could be useful for microbes, if any exist there. The finding also provides further evidence that warm, mineral-laden water is pouring into the ocean from vents in the seafloor. On Earth, such hydrothermal vents support thriving communities of life in complete isolation from sunlight. Enceladus now appears likely to have all three of the ingredients scientists think life needs: liquid water, a source of energy (like sunlight or chemical energy), and the right chemical ingredients (like carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen).

Cassini is not able to detect life, and has found no evidence that Enceladus is inhabited. But if life is there, that means life is probably common throughout the cosmos; if life has not evolved there, it would suggest life is probably more complicated or unlikely than we have thought. Either way the implications are profound. Future missions to this icy moon may shed light on its habitability.

White smoker footage courtesy of: NOAA-OER / C.German (WHOI)

The Year Ahead in Space

Donald Trump (Credit: Michael Vadon)
Donald Trump (Credit: Michael Vadon)

It’s going to be busy year in space in 2017. Here’s a look at what we can expect over the next 12 months.

A New Direction for NASA?

NASA’s focus under the Obama Administration has been to try to commercialize Earth orbit while creating a foundation that would allow the space agency to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030’s.

Whether Mars will remain a priority under the incoming Trump Administration remains to be seen. There is a possibility Trump will refocus the space agency on lunar missions instead.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), who is currently viewed as a leading candidate for NASA administrator, has written two blog posts focused on the importance of exploring the moon and developing its resources. Of course, whether Bridenstine will get NASA’s top job is unclear at this time.

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Oh the Places You Will Go….

Interplanetary Transport System at Jupiter. (Credit: SpaceX)
Interplanetary Transport System at Jupiter. (Credit: SpaceX)

Elon Musk wants to take SpaceX’s Interplanetary Transport System well beyond Mars, which will keep animators employed until some distant time when he can actually do so.

Int3erplanetary Transport System at Saturn. (Credit: SpaceX)
Interplanetary Transport System at Saturn. (Credit: SpaceX)
Interplanetary Transport System at Europa. (Credit: SpaceX)
Interplanetary Transport System at Europa. (Credit: SpaceX)
Interplanetary Transport System at Enceladus. (Credit: SpaceX)
Interplanetary Transport System at Enceladus. (Credit: SpaceX)

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NASA Year in Review

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — In 2015, NASA explored the expanse of our solar system and beyond, and the complex processes of our home planet, while also advancing the technologies for our journey to Mars, and new aviation systems as the agency reached new milestones aboard the International Space Station.

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Apollo, Ansari and the Hobbling Effects of Giant Leaps

spaceshipone_first_spaceflight
The author films as WhiteKnight taxis with SpaceShipOne on June 21, 2004. (Credit: John Criswick)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

On Oct. 4, the world marked the anniversaries of two very different space milestones. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik. And in 2004, SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X Prize by becoming the first privately-built vehicle to fly to space twice within two weeks.

While Sputnik quickly led to Sputnik 2 and 3, the Ansari X Prize has been followed by a decade of frustration. SpaceShipOne never flew again, nor has anyone replicated its accomplishments since. The dream of a vibrant new industry that would routinely fly thousands of tourists into space has remained just out of reach.

So, why did Sputnik quickly help spark a revolution that would transform life on Earth, while the Ansari X Prize led to 10 years of extravagant promises and desultory results? And what does this tell us about the role of prizes in moving technology forward?

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Keck Proposes Deep Space CubeSat Missions

CHAMPAGNE Rings Explorer (Credit: Keck Institute for Space Studies)
CHAMPAGNE Rings Explorer (Credit: Keck Institute for Space Studies)

Last month, the Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS) at the California Institute of Technology released a report titled, “Small Satellites: A Revolution in Space Science,” which examines the sorts of missions types of missions that could be with rapidly evolving small satellites. The potential missions described in the report cover planetary science (moons, asteroids, etc.), astrophysics and heliophysics.

The planetary science missions include the use of mother ships that would deploy CubeSats and impactors to explore Jupiter’s moon Europa, tens of thousands of ChipSats to characterize Saturn’s rings, landing vehicles to explore asteroids, and small spacecraft that would map the moon’s interior and search for volatiles and organics.

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Titan Volcanoes Spewing Super-Chilled Liquid?

NASA MISSION UPDATE

Data collected during several recent flybys of Titan by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft have put another arrow in the quiver of scientists who think the Saturnian moon contains active cryovolcanoes spewing a super-chilled liquid into its atmosphere. The information was released during a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, Calif.

“Cryovolcanoes are some of the most intriguing features in the solar system,” said Rosaly Lopes, a Cassini radar team investigation scientist from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “To put them in perspective – if Mount Vesuvius had been a cryovolcano, its lava would have frozen the residents of Pompeii.”

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Saturn’s Moon Enceladus Appears to Be Geologically Active

NASA MISSION UPDATE

The closer scientists look at Saturn’s small moon Enceladus, the more they find evidence of an active world. The most recent flybys of Enceladus made by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft have provided new signs of ongoing changes on and around the moon. The latest high-resolution images of Enceladus show signs that the south polar surface changes over time.

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Researcher Proposes Hot-Air Balloon for Titan

Titan Triple Threat
Astrobiology Magazine

“Athena Coustenis, an astrophysicist and planetologist with the Paris Observatory, is helping draft a plan to send a hot air balloon to Titan, as well as an orbiting spacecraft and a surface probe. Called TSSM – the Titan and Saturn System Mission – this three-tiered approach to exploration could shed more light on the still-mysterious moon.”

“’Titan is the best place to go with a balloon because of the atmosphere,’ says Coustenis. Although the atmosphere of Titan is filled with a smoggy orange hydrocarbon haze, it is primarily composed of nitrogen – just like Earth’s. In fact, Astrobiologists think Titan’s atmosphere may be quite similar to how the Earth’s was billions of years ago, before life on our planet generated oxygen.”

Forecast for Titan: Cloudy With a 90 Percent Chance of T-Storms

University of Granada Press Release

Physicists of the University of Granada and the University of Valencia (Spain) have developed a proceeding to analyse specific data sent by the Huygens probe from Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, proving “in an unequivocal way” that there is natural electric activity in its atmosphere.

The scientific community thinks that there is a higher probability that organic molecules precursors to life could form in those planets or satellites which have an atmosphere with electric storms.

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Cassini Studies Geysers on Saturn’s Moon Enceladus

In this artist’s concept, the Cassini spacecraft makes a close pass by Saturn’s inner moon Enceladus to study plumes from geysers that erupt from giant fissures in the moon’s southern polar region. Image copyright: Karl Kofoed

NASA MISSION UPDATE

Scientists continue to search for the cause of the geysers on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The geysers are visible as a large plume of water vapor and ice particles escaping the moon. Inside the plume are jets of dust and gas. What causes and controls the jets is a mystery. The Cassini spacecraft continues to collect new data to look for clues.

At the heart of the search is the question of whether the jets originate from an underground source of liquid water. Some theories offer models where the jets could be caused by mechanisms that do not require liquid water. Painstaking detective work by Cassini scientists is testing the possibilities to get closer to an answer.

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Cassini Discovers Massive Cyclones on Saturn

NASA MISSION UPDATE

New images from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft reveal a giant cyclone at Saturn’s north pole, and show that a similarly monstrous cyclone churning at Saturn’s south pole is powered by Earth-like storm patterns.

The new-found cyclone at Saturn’s north pole is only visible in the near-infrared wavelengths because the north pole is in winter, thus in darkness to visible-light cameras. At these wavelengths, about seven times greater than light seen by the human eye, the clouds deep inside Saturn’s atmosphere are seen in silhouette against the background glow of Saturn’s internal heat.

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Cassini Finds Rings Found Around Saturn’s Moons

Cassini images reveal the existence of a faint arc of material orbiting with Saturn’s small moon Anthe.

NASA MISSION UPDATE

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has detected a faint, partial ring orbiting with one small moon of Saturn, and has confirmed the presence of another partial ring orbiting with a second moon. This is further evidence that most of the planet’s small, inner moons orbit within partial or complete rings.

Recent Cassini images show material, called ring arcs, extending ahead of and behind the small moons Anthe and Methone in their orbits. The new findings indicate that the gravitational influence of nearby moons on ring particles might be the deciding factor in whether an arc or complete ring is formed.

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Cassini Pinpoints Source of Jets on Saturn’s Moon Enceladus

CASSINI MISSION UPDATE
14 August 2008

In a feat of interplanetary sharpshooting, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has pinpointed precisely where the icy jets erupt from the surface of Saturn’s geologically active moon Enceladus.

New carefully targeted pictures reveal exquisite details in the prominent south polar “tiger stripe” fractures from which the jets emanate. The images show the fractures are about 300 meters (980 feet) deep, with V-shaped inner walls. The outer flanks of some of the fractures show extensive deposits of fine material. Finely fractured terrain littered with blocks of ice tens of meters in size and larger (the size of small houses) surround the fractures.

“This is the mother lode for us,” said Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging team leader at the Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colo. “A place that may ultimately reveal just exactly what kind of environment — habitable or not — we have within this tortured little moon.”

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