Ingredients for alien life found in icy geysers on Saturn's moon Enceladus

Scientists have discovered complex organic molecules erupting into space from one of Saturn's moons, boosting the idea this ocean-world has conditions suitable for life.

The findings, made by analyzing data from the Cassini spacecraft, were published in a study Wednesday. The moon, Enceladus, is one of several dozen moons that orbit Saturn.

"With complex organic molecules emanating from its liquid water ocean, this moon is the only body besides Earth known to simultaneously satisfy all of the basic requirements for life as we know it," said study co-author Christopher Glein, a space scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.

Enceladus is considered one of our solar system's most promising candidates in the search for extraterrestrial life. Huge icy jets several hundreds of miles high erupt from the moon and are likely associated with hydrothermal vents in the moon's core.

A co-author, Frank Postberg of the University of Heidelburg, said, "It is the first-ever detection of complex organics coming from an extraterrestrial water-world."

The organic molecules were discovered in ice grains ejected from geysers through cracks in Enceladus' icy surface.

While this isn't concrete proof of life on Enceladus, the discovery of complex molecules, combined with liquid water and hydrothermal activity, means it is possible.

Launched from Earth in 1997, Cassini spent a remarkable 13 years circling and studying Saturn and its moons. Although the spacecraft crashed into Saturn last year as its mission ended, scientists are still analyzing data it sent back.

"Even after its end, the Cassini spacecraft continues to teach us about the potential of Enceladus to advance the field of astrobiology in an ocean world," Glein said.

This is the most recent in a long series of discoveries made by Cassini that have been painting Enceladus as a potentially habitable water-world, the European Space Agency said.

The study was published in Nature, a peer-reviwed British journal.

About the Author