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Could a dedicated mission to Enceladus detect microbial life there?

This illustration taken from the Cassini Grand Finale movie shows Cassini's fly-through of the Enceladus plume in October 2015.

This illustration taken from the Cassini Grand Finale movie shows Cassini’s fly-through of the Enceladus plume in October 2015. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus is perhaps best known for its numerous geysers ejecting plumes of water and ice. These eruptive fountains have perplexed researchers searching for signs of microbial life beyond Earth. A dedicated spacecraft designed to study the plume-like features sprouting from Enceladus could definitely tell us whether they contain alien microorganisms.

“We need a spacecraft to travel to Enceladus, fly through a geyser plume, and analyze the water that is immediately accessible,” Geoffrey Marcy, a retired professor of astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley, told

Marcy is a renowned exoplanet researcher, who discovered many extrasolar worlds. He was one of the co-investigators of NASA’s Kepler planet-hunting mission that detected more than 4,000 exoworlds. He was also involved in studies focusing on detecting signals from extraterrestrial civilizations and was the principal investigator of the Breakthrough Listen project. The program, funded by billionaire Yuri Milner, is looking for signs of extraterrestrial civilizations by searching stars and galaxies for radio signals and laser transmissions.

Marcy underlines that when it comes to searching for signs of microbial life in the Solar System, some assistance from billionaires investing in the space project would also be most helpful.

Enceladus has become one of the prominent places in the Solar System where scientists are actively seeking out alien life. Photo Credit: NASA / JPL

“The NASA missions, as currently planned, will require at least 20 years before a detection of microbial life will happen, at the earliest. However, a brilliant team of billionaires could work with NASA to fund a spacecraft to Saturn’s moon, Enceladus. It could capture the water spurting out the geysers and use conventional microscopes to detect any microbial life there,” Marcy said.

While a future mission to Enceladus would address complex questions about the origin of life, the spacecraft itself will be relatively easy to build and operate. According to Marcy, we just need a dedicated probe equipped with a set of well-suited science instruments, capable of flying through the plumes and able to perform required measurements.

“The remarkable aspect of the search for microbes in the water spurting from geysers is that the spacecraft only needs to fly through the plume, well above the surface of Enceladus. No lander is needed – just a succession of fly-bys through the plumes as it orbits Enceladus,” Marcy said.

He noted that such spacecraft should be fitted with a mass spectrometer necessary to detect organic compounds that could be signs of microbial life. The spectrometer will look for amino acids and the structure of any organic molecules, especially fatty acids that compose cell membranes. It could also measure the relative amounts of isotopes of carbon (12 and 14) to detect non-natural anomalies due to biological processes.

Moreover, the mission to Enceladus would measure the properties of the water such as pH, oxidation, temperature; therefore, assessing its suitability for organic life.

Marcy added that, besides a spectrometer, the proposed spacecraft should also have an optical imaging system capable of capturing microscopic images in order to more effectively search for microorganisms on this icy world.

“The mission should also include a microscope and camera to image directly any organisms in the water that are as small as a few microns in size,” Marcy said.

Discovered in 1789 by William Herschel, Enceladus is the sixth-largest moon of Saturn, with a diameter of about 310 miles (500 kilometers). First detailed pictures of this moon were acquired in the early 1980s by NASA’s two Voyager probes. Since 2005, Enceladus is continuously studied by the NASA/ESA Cassini spacecraft, which detected the water plumes erupting from the moon’s south polar region.



Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski's generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.

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