Expert Voices

Saturn's ocean moon Enceladus is able to support life − my research team is working out how to detect extraterrestrial cells there

a small probe shaped like a lollipop flies above an icy moon spewing plumes of vapor into space
A snapshot of Cassini flying through the plumes of Enceladus during its final orbits between April and September 2017 (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

This article was originally published at The Conversation. The publication contributed the article to's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Fabian Klenner is a planetary scientist and astrobiologist at the University of Washington (UW). His research focus lies on the exploration of icy moons in the solar system, in particular Saturn's moon Enceladus and Jupiter's moon Europa.

Saturn has 146 confirmed moons – more than any other planet in the solar system – but one called Enceladus stands out. It appears to have the ingredients for life.

From 2004 to 2017, Cassini – a joint mission between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency – investigated Saturn, its rings and moons. Cassini delivered spectacular findings. Enceladus, only 313 miles (504 kilometers) in diameter, harbors a liquid water ocean beneath its icy crust that spans the entire moon.

Geysers at the moon's south pole shoot gas and ice grains formed from the ocean water into space

Related: Life on Enceladus? Europe eyes astrobiology mission to Saturn ocean moon

Though the Cassini engineers didn’t anticipate analyzing ice grains that Enceladus was actively emitting, they did pack a dust analyzer on the spacecraft. This instrument measured the emitted ice grains individually and told researchers about the composition of the subsurface ocean.

As a planetary scientist and astrobiologist who studies ice grains from Enceladus, I’m interested in whether there is life on this or other icy moons. I also want to understand how scientists like me could detect it. 

Ingredients for life 

Just like Earth’s oceans, Enceladus’ ocean contains salt, most of which is sodium chloride, commonly known as table salt. The ocean also contains various carbon-based compounds, and it has a process called tidal heating that generates energy within the moon. Liquid water, carbon-based chemistry and energy are all key ingredients for life.

In 2023, I and others scientists found phosphate, another life-supporting compound, in ice grains originating from Enceladus’ ocean. Phosphate, a form of phosphorus, is vital for all life on Earth. It is part of DNA, cell membranes and bones. This was the first time that scientists detected this compound in an extraterrestrial water ocean.

Enceladus’ rocky core likely interacts with the water ocean through hydrothermal vents. These hot, geyserlike structures protrude from the ocean floor. Scientists predict that a similar setting may have been the birthplace of life on Earth.

The interior of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. (Image credit: ESA)

Detecting potential life

As of now, nobody has ever detected life beyond Earth. But scientists agree that Enceladus is a very promising place to look for life. So, how do we go about looking?

In a paper published in March 2024, my colleagues and I conducted a laboratory test that simulated whether dust analyzer instruments on spacecraft could detect and identify traces of life in the emitted ice grains.

To simulate the detection of ice grains as dust analyzers in space record them, we used a laboratory setup on Earth. Using this setup, we injected a tiny water beam that contained bacterial cells into a vacuum, where the beam disintegrated into droplets. Each droplet contained, in theory, one bacterial cell.

Then, we shot a laser at the individual droplets, which created charged ions from the water and the cell compounds. We measured the charged ions using a technique called mass spectrometry. These measurements helped us predict what dust analyzer instruments on a spacecraft should find if they encountered a bacterial cell contained in an ice grain.

We found these instruments would do a good job identifying cellular material. Instruments designed to analyze single ice grains should be able to identify bacterial cells, even if there is only 0.01% of the constituents of a single cell in an ice grain from an Enceladus-like geyser.

The analyzers could pick up a number of potential signatures from cellular material, including amino acids and fatty acids. Detected amino acids represent either fragments of the cell's proteins or metabolites, which are small molecules participating in chemical reactions within the cell. Fatty acids are fragments of lipids that make up the cell's membranes.

In our experiments, we used a bacteria named Sphingopyxis alaskensis. Cells of this culture are extremely tiny – the same size as cells that might be able to fit into ice grains emitted from Enceladus. In addition to their small size, these cells like cold environments, and they need only a few nutrients to survive and grow, similar to how life adapted to the conditions in Enceladus' ocean would probably be.

The specific dust analyzer on Cassini didn’t have the analytical capabilities to identify cellular material in the ice grains. However, scientists are already designing instruments with much greater capabilities for potential future Enceladus missions. Our experimental results will inform the planning and design of these instruments.

Future missions 

Enceladus is one of the main targets for future missions from NASA and the European Space Agency. In 2022, NASA announced that a mission to Enceladus had the second-highest priority as they picked their next big missions – a Uranus mission had the highest priority.

The European agency recently announced that Enceladus is the top target for its next big mission. This mission would likely include a highly capable dust analyzer for ice grain analysis.

Enceladus isn’t the only moon with a liquid water ocean. Jupiter’s moon Europa also has an ocean that spans the entire moon underneath its icy crust. Ice grains on Europa float up above the surface, and some scientists think Europa may even have geysers like Enceladus that shoot grains into space. Our research will also help study ice grains from Europa.

NASA’s Europa Clipper mission will visit Europa in the coming years. Clipper is scheduled to launch in October 2024 and arrive at Jupiter in April 2030. One of the two mass spectrometers on the spacecraft, the SUrface Dust Analyzer, is designed for single ice grain analysis. 

The SUrface Dust Analyzer instrument on Clipper will analyze ice grains from Jupiter's moon Europa. (Image credit: NASA/CU Boulder/Glenn Asakawa)

Our study demonstrates that this instrument will be able to find even tiny fractions of a bacterial cell, if present in only a few emitted ice grains.

With these space agencies' near-future plans and the results of our study, the prospects of upcoming space missions visiting Enceladus or Europa are incredibly exciting. We now know that with current and future instrumentation, scientists should be able to find out whether there is life on any of these moons.

Read the original article at The Conversation.

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Fabian Klenner
Postdoctoral Scholar in Earth and Space Sciences, University of Washington

Fabian Klenner is a planetary scientist and astrobiologist at the University of Washington (UW). His research focus lies on the exploration of icy moons in the Solar System, in particular Saturn's moon Enceladus and Jupiter's moon Europa. He is interested in geochemical processes happening on these moons as well as the detection of potential life beyond Earth.

Fabian is an affiliate of NASA's Europa Clipper mission and involved in the planning and design of a potential future Enceladus mission. He is Co-Investigator of BioSigN, an ESA-led experiment to be performed on the International Space Station. Fabian's work is also relevant to the past Cassini mission and he is involved in ESA's CALICO, a potential mission to dwarf planet Ceres. He is member of various learned societies, including his co-leadership of the Ocean Worlds and Icy Moons working group of the German Astrobiology Society.

Before accepting his current position at UW in 2023, he was a Postdoctoral researcher at Freie Universität Berlin, the same university from where he received his Ph.D. in 2021. He studied Earth Sciences at Heidelberg University (M.Sc. and B.Sc.).

  • sciencecompliance
    I'm very cautiously optimistic at the prospect of finding life on (in?) any of the icy moons. For all we know, sunlight and/or lightning could be key components for abiogenesis, as well as other factors not present on these bodies. It's also possible that life was seeded from space in the early solar system, so, without a surface capable of sustaining life, it may not be possible for life to really take hold.
  • Frank Sterle Jr
    With much of the world literally and figuratively on fire, an extraterrestrial attack is likely what humankind collectively needs to brutally endure in order to survive the very-long-term from ourselves:

    Humanity could all unite for the first time ever to defend against, attack and defeat the humanicidal multi-tentacled ETs, the latter needing to be an even greater nemesis than our own formidably divisive politics and perceptions of differences, both real and perceived — especially those involving color and race.

    During this much-needed human allegiance, we’d be forced to work closely side-by-side together and witness just how humanly similar we are to each other in every significant way. (But then I’ve been informed that one or more human parties might actually attempt to forge an allegiance with the ETs to better their own chances for survival, thus indicating that our deficient human condition may be even worse than I had originally thought.)

    Still, maybe some five or more decades later when all traces of the nightmarish ET invasion are gone, we'll inevitably revert to those same politics to which we humans seem so hopelessly collectively and maybe even individually prone — including those of scale: the intercontinental, international, national, provincial or state, regional and municipal. And again we slide downwards.

    It’s quite plausible that if the world’s population was somehow reduced to just a few city blocks of seemingly similar residents, there’d sooner or later be some form of notable inter-neighborhood hostilities.