Saturn moon Enceladus is 1st alien 'water world' with complex organics

By Charles Q. Choi
June 29, 2018, 9:14:13 AM EDT

Complex organic molecules have been discovered for the first time coming from the depths of Saturn's moon Enceladus, a new study reported.

Spacecraft scheduled to launch soon could explore what this new discovery says about the chances of life within icy moons like Enceladus, the study's researchers said.

The sixth largest of Saturn's moons, Enceladus is only about 314 miles (505 kilometers) in diameter. This makes the moon small enough to fit inside the borders of Arizona.


The Cassini spacecraft first flew through the plumes of Saturn's moon Enceladus in November 2009, capturing this image along the way. Now, new data suggests that those plumes might contain complex organic (carbon-based) molecules.Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

In 2005, NASA's Cassini spacecraft detected plumes of water vapor and icy particles erupting from Enceladus, revealing the existence of a giant ocean hidden under the moon's frozen shell. Because there is life virtually wherever there is water on Earth, these findings suggested that life might also exist on Enceladus.

Previously, scientists had detected only simple organic (carbon-based) compounds, each less than about five carbon atoms in size, in the plumes of Enceladus. Now, researchers have detected complex organic molecules from the moon, including some at least 15 carbon atoms in size.

"This is the first-ever detection of complex organics coming from an extraterrestrial water world," study lead author Frank Postberg, a planetary scientist at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, told

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