Any biomass on Saturn’s “Snowball Moon” Enceladus cannot be larger than a whale in total, scientists say

Is there some kind of alien life on Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus? If there is an orbital space probe being planned now by NASA, it can find it, according to a new study.

However, it also suggests that the total biomass that the Moon’s subsurface ocean can support may be less than that of whales.

Finding life on Enceladus would change everything.

If there is life on this world 800 million miles from Earth, it’s probably microbial (and probably not weird eyeless creatures). But even that would change how planetary scientists and astrobiologists see the solar system, the galaxy, and the universe beyond.

MORE FROM FORBESSeven things you need to know about NASA’s new $4.9 billion mission to Enceladus, a small moon of Saturn

This Enceladus Orbilander mission – which could launching in 2038 to arrive in 2050 – would orbit and land on Saturn’s small active moon to investigate the 100+ plumes at the moon’s south pole that flow into space through cracks in its icy shell. These clouds were first observed by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which orbited Saturn from 1997 to 2017.

Beneath its icy crust, Enceladus is thought to have a warm saline ocean that could support microbial life in its dark depths.

MORE FROM FORBESAre there ‘eyeless creatures’ on Enceladus? Why we need to probe the dark ocean of Saturn’s “Snowball” moon

In an article published in The Planetary Science Journal scientists map out how a hypothetical space mission that could prove that there is life – or not – in that ocean.

It is not suggests sending a robot to the surface of Enceladus to enter the cracks in the ice that appear to belch out methane. It would be very difficult.

“By simulating the data that a more prepared and advanced orbiting spacecraft would collect from just the clouds, our team has now shown that this approach would be enough to confidently determine whether there is life in Enceladus’ ocean without having to probe the moon’s depths ,” said Régis Ferrière, senior author of the new paper and associate professor in UArizona’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

“This is an exciting prospect.”

It certainly is. The water vapor and ice particles ejected from the geysers on Enceladus contain gases and other particles from deep within the ocean. Cassini detected methane, suggesting ecosystems – possibly around hydrothermal vents.

“On our planet, hydrothermal vents teem with life, large and small, despite darkness and insane pressure,” Ferrière said. “The simplest living creatures are microbes called methanogens that fuel themselves in the absence of sunlight.”

MORE FROM FORBESThe jaw-dropping billion-dollar mission to land on ‘the most exciting object in the solar system’

We are not talking about a lot of biomass. In fact, it’s doubtful that Enceladus can host much at all.

“We were surprised to find that the hypothetical abundance of cells would only amount to the biomass of a single whale in Enceladus’ global ocean,” said Antonin Affholder, the paper’s first author and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Arizona, who was at L’Université PSL (Paris Sciences & Lettres) when doing this research.

“Enceladus’ biosphere may be very sparse,” he said. “And yet our models indicate that it would be productive enough to feed the clouds with just enough organic molecules or cells to be picked up by instruments aboard a future spacecraft.”

MORE FROM FORBESWe’re going to Uranus! NASA to spend $4.2 billion and $4.9 billion on new flagship missions to ‘Ice Giant’ and Saturn’s ‘Wet Moon’ Enceladus

Although it seems like an orbiter of some kind could identify life on Enceladus, there is pessimism from scientists about it actually wanted.

If the Enceladus Orbilander is to detect signs of life in the clouds, it will need to fly through them several times, say the researchers, who warn that the amino acids it can detect will only be indirect evidence of life.

“The definitive proof of living cells captured on an alien world may remain elusive for generations,” Affholder said. “Until then, the fact that we cannot rule out the existence of life on Enceladus is probably the best we can do.”

Wishing you clear skies and big eyes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *