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Space Science

Cassini Could Find Signs of Life on Enceladus 126

Posted by kdawson
from the buddy-can-you-spare-some-methane dept.
New Scientist reviews the possibility that the Cassini probe might be repurposed to look for signs of life on Saturn's enigmatic moon Enceladus. "[Enceladus' water vapor] plume's origin is still being debated, but some models suggest the moon holds an ocean of liquid water beneath its surface. This ocean could be a potential habitat for extraterrestrial life. ... Though the probe was never designed to look for life, it could do so by studying organic chemicals such as methane in the plume, the team says."
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Cassini Could Find Signs of Life on Enceladus

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  • With all the weird things we find on Earth, I wonder what could be in that water?
    • I would not be surprised to find single celled life to be rather common given liquid water environments, a source of energy, and organic molecules. I'll be surprised when (if) anyone finds any complex life forms in our lifetime. I fully expect to live long enough to find evidence of current or former single celled life elsewhere in our Solar System.

      • by Ethanol-fueled (1125189) * on Monday November 03, 2008 @05:14PM (#25618779) Homepage Journal
        Cells? Hell, I'd be happy with the discovery of precursors to amino acids and proteins. we have a lot to learn about how environments effect change as well as which envronments can and cannot spawn life.

        When people hypothesize about life forming on earth, they mention catalysts such as lightning strikes or volcanoes jump-starting chemical reactions. Not a far stretch of imagination given the thermophilic and cryophilic bacteria here on earth. Unfortunately, I don't think we should expect to find anything profound until we can load ourselves into a rocket, go there ourselves, and hope that we can return and analyze our samples without contaminating them.
        • by dreamchaser (49529) on Monday November 03, 2008 @05:32PM (#25618995) Homepage Journal

          Precursors? They've already determined that complete amino acids can be found on carbonaceous asteroids. It's actually *easy* to make amino acids; the mystery is how amino and nucleic acids came together to form what we call life. My guess is given the right environment (liquid water, ingredients, and a source of energy) and enough time 'life' forms under a variety of other variables.

          • by Gat0r30y (957941) on Monday November 03, 2008 @05:52PM (#25619227) Homepage Journal
            The problem here is that right now we only have the one data point for the formation of life (our lonely blue marble). So we really haven't got a good idea of what is suitable for the formation of life, and so far our approach has been to assume that it must be pretty darn close to what we have here.
            • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

              by sznupi (719324)

              Problem is even bigger - our only data point shows us the place FEW BILLION YEARS after formation of first life here; which greatly affected the environment (presence of free oxygen, carbon cycle in the atmosphere regulating global climate, and so on...).

              Therefore, contrary to what you say in your last sentence, we can't assume at all that what is suitable for the formation of life is close to what we have here...simply because conditions on early Earth, when life formed, were so vastly different (and we're

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Smauler (915644)

        Don't assume life will automatically exist where there is water and light. Just because the conditions for life are there, doesn't mean it's not a massive improbability that it starts. If the start of life was easy, we would have replicated it centuries ago. Personally, I would be very suprised if we see life in our solar system (apart from Earth). I do still hope to be suprised though... but not by a face consuming alien killer virus, obviously.

        • by Fluffeh (1273756) on Monday November 03, 2008 @07:05PM (#25620047)
          Not to totally go in the face of your post, but to counter your "massive improbability" comment. Yes, it's totally a massive improbability that life starts easily. However, what life has on it's side is TIME. Enceladus has been happily circling it's planet for millions of years. Sure, it's improbably that life was created there in the first minute. It's also improbably that just the right mix of ingredients was there the next minute - but the odds get better and better with every following minute that the right bunch of ingredients came along and life popped into existence from the precursors that were in the water. Given millions and millions of years, I would say that the chances don't look like a massive improbability, but more along the lines of a massive probability that at some point the right mix of things came together and made life of some sort. I would go so far as to say that I think it would be a massive improbability that the universe isn't simply teeming with life of all sorts.
          • by aqk (844307)

            Read your Richard Dawkins.

            If the probability of a "self-replicating" molecule to somehow spontaneously occur is, oh, let's say 10**112 (give or take five or six zeros or so), and the number of atoms in the Universe is 8*(10**88) (just a guess), then, hey, what's ten or twenty billion years between friends?

            Sagan's "billions and billions" start to look an awful lot like SMALL numbers- even in these days of financial bailouts etc, not to mention the age of this or that particular universe- in

        • by MightyMartian (840721) on Monday November 03, 2008 @07:21PM (#25620233) Journal

          It's difficult to say whether it's improbable or not. We know that some pretty damned neat chemistry can take place where you have liquid water, complex organic compounds and a good source of energy. There are a number of bodies in the solar system that now appear to have at least the water and energy, and finding amino acids and other organic compounds in cometary bodies is a pretty good indicator that places like Enceladus and Europa probably have their fair share as well. The real difficulty is these worlds have really thick layers of ice, so getting a sample of what's in the oceans beneath would be a trick.

    • by CRCulver (715279)

      With all the weird things we find on Earth, I wonder what could be in that water?

      One of the most poignant scenes in all of science fiction is the encounter between crashed astronauts and life on Europa in Arthur C. Clarke's 2010: Odyssey Two [amazon.com] . Even though Clarke's powers as a novelist were failing even then, he gave an impressive vision of a possible Europan lifeform, something very unlike anything in our experience, though we could use basic metaphors like "trees". I wish I could find more science fictio

      • I believe the 'wolves' you mention were a bit more interesting than that - each person actually consisted of a pack of 3-6? creatures, communicating among themselves via an ultrasonic network. A single 'wolf' was not very smart, but in their networks they formed a cohesive intelligent 'being'. Of course on top of that they had a pretty un-alien society, but I thought the pack+network=person idea was pretty neat.

        (If you're not talking about "A Fire in the Deep", ignore this - also I hereby disclaim that my

        • by CRCulver (715279)
          The Tines' group consciousness was indeed interesting. But not the shape of their bodies, which just happened to look terrestial, nor their behaviour with things like laughter and James Bond village-like smugness. Each Tine personality was basically a stock human character. The pigs were the Tines' enemies, whom Woodcarvers forces met on their way north.
      • Solaris [wikipedia.org] by Stanislav Lem is about contact between a group of human scientists and an alien lifeform that covers the entire surface of a planet.

        from the plot summary on Wikipedia:

        The novel is about the ultimately futile attempt to communicate with an alien life-form on a distant planet. The planet, called Solaris, is covered with a so-called "ocean" that seems to really be a single organism covering the entire surface. The ocean shows signs of a vast but strange intelligence, which can create physical phenom

        • by rk (6314)
          I think most people who are scornful of aliens being portrayed as humanoids have never had to manage the budget for a science fiction TV show. ;-)
      • by aqk (844307)

        But then, Americans have always had problems with European life-forms.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      Maybe we'll find the Intelligent Designer with a supercomputer designing life on earth. All that vapor must come from water-cooling the circuits
    • by von_rick (944421)
      At -175C on the outer rings, its got to be even colder on the surface. If at all there is water on the surface, its frozen solid for gazillion years.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by CRCulver (715279)

        At -175C on the outer rings, its got to be even colder on the surface. If at all there is water on the surface, its frozen solid for gazillion years.

        Unless there is still geological activity beneath the surface, as there possibly is on several moons.

      • by snowraver1 (1052510) on Monday November 03, 2008 @05:52PM (#25619243)
        There is a lot of heat that gets created from tidal action. The gas giants have such intense gravity that it warps the surface of the moons as they rotate around the planet. This shifting of the moon creates a lot of heat. Enough to have liquid water? Who knows.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by owlnation (858981)

      With all the weird things we find on Earth, I wonder what could be in that water?

      It's a moon, so obviously... WHALES!!!

      Everybody sing: "we're whalers on the moon..."

    • by eclectro (227083)

      With all the weird things we find on Earth, I wonder what could be in that water?

      Trash? Wrappers?

      • by spun (1352)

        With all the weird things we find on Earth, I wonder what could be in that water?

        Trash? Wrappers?

        Enchiladas? There simply have to be enchiladas on Enceladus, or my whole plan to set up an extraterrestrial enchilada mine is shot.

    • by dotancohen (1015143) on Monday November 03, 2008 @05:43PM (#25619127) Homepage

      With all the weird things we find on Earth, I wonder what could be in that water?

      Don't drink it.

  • Sounds nice but.... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by blackholepcs (773728) on Monday November 03, 2008 @05:04PM (#25618613) Journal
    The only problem with stories like this is that we either don't actually do it, or we DO do it and get results that tell us nothing useful (as far as the question of E.T. life). Why can't they just :

    1. Design and build rover/robot/probe whose sole task is to find and identify life on another planet/moon/whatever.
    2. Deploy said rover/robot/probe.
    3. Get definitive answer - Yes there is/yes there was actual life here, or No there isn't/no there wasn't actual life here.
    4. Rinse and repeat.

    Seriously, why is that so hard?
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by internerdj (1319281)
      Because ET life believers have been painted as nutjobs because of the outspoken ones who had ahem "close" encounters with ET life. Scientifically speaking it is certainly probable we could find something else, getting emotional taxpayers to fund something is an entirely different story. Especially with step 4.
      • by dmomo (256005)

        >> Especially with step 4.

        What's so hard about getting taxpayers excited about funding this step? Every one understands:

        4. Profit

        For real, though. There should be some campaign explaining to the layman (by who I mean, non-scientist / geek) what the actual benefits of life would be. Then we should maybe ask, suppose there are these benefits. What is the chance of finding life. Is the cost worth the statistical payoff? I'd imagine no. Because life would be so difficult to find / identify. Maybe

        • If you get a definative answer of No out of step 3, who is going to want to fund more trips or more trips to different locations with the same goal? Although a definative No would be a start to give corporations free reign to strip resources out of a planet or moon or asteroid rather than here where they are destroying existing life.
          • by dmomo (256005)

            Or, a definitive "No" might lead to the question, "are there ample resources to support our life". That way we could colonize without putting other life (and our own) at risk by cross-contamination.

        • by russ1337 (938915)
          Step 4. Profit: Big Company* patents/copyrights/trademarks the extra-terrestrial life.

          Disney - toys & Merch
          Monstanto - genes & DNA to spice into our food
          Big Pharma - new Drugs for our baldness
          Big record - a new kind of music
          etc
    • Whoa. Troll? Really? For an on-topic post? Wow. That's just awesome.
      • Whoa. Troll? Really? For an on-topic post? Wow. That's just awesome.

        That surprised me too, considering "In space no one can hear you fart" is okay. I would have said "If NASA smelt it, NASA dealt it". I thought your idea was very good. Jump right into that ocean and do a continuous stream analysis until it is either definitely positive or definitely negative.

    • by argent (18001) <[moc.agnorat.6002.todhsals] [ta] [retep]> on Monday November 03, 2008 @05:23PM (#25618883) Homepage Journal

      How do you know when you've found life?

      How do you distinguish between life and unusual chemical reactions?

      Sure, if a gnarled humanoid pops up and waves a glowing finger at you, you've found life, but what happens if you just find a brown stain that seems to be producing oxygen? Is it alive or a permanganate salt?

      • Brown stain? Or hyper-intelligent shade of blue?
      • How do you distinguish between life and unusual chemical reactions?

        What about the fact that life is pretty much a series of unusual chemical reactions? ;-)

        • What about the fact that life is pretty much a series of unusual chemical reactions? ;-)

          Way to give away the surprising twist at the end.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by dotancohen (1015143)

        ...but what happens if you just find a brown stain...

        Please, enough about the Ubuntu wallpaper already!

      • by Tablizer (95088)

        How do you distinguish between life and unusual chemical reactions?

        Generally its a matter of upping the exploration expenditure and attention. The more it looks like actual life, the more follow-up experiments are sent. It would keep ramping up each time until a near definitive conclusion was found (or the money all spent).

        The Mars life question kind of was dropped when people discovered possible non-organic explanations to the unusual Viking results. If they didn't find those alternatives, then a follow-

      • Youse a (relatively) simple confocal optical microscope. It's not _that_ hard. Just LOOK at the damn samples.

        • by argent (18001)

          Just LOOK at the damn samples.

          That test has already failed on Earth, at least on "fossils" that turned out to be inorganic.

          • Umm... OK, but the tests devised so far are, anyway, looking for active (non-fossilized) life. Though you do have a point.

    • As someone has already noted, determine what is and is not life is already difficult with terrestrial cases (which presumably are all somewhat related, far enough back in time). Trying to guess what will be "life" on a celestial body is even worse. However, another problem arises and that's scope. For a Mars mission, you might get away with such a narrow objective, but for the outer solar system merely getting there is so expensive that to launch a spacecraft with only one objective like that would proba

    • "1. Design and build rover/robot/probe whose sole task is to find and identify life on another planet/moon/whatever."

      A big part of the problem is "How do you define life [anl.gov]? Add to that the fact that we are often looking for evidence of past life and you have quite a complex puzzle to solve.

      It gets more complex as you go. The universe is vast. [youtube.com] It is easy to say "Deploy said rover/robot/probe." but deploy it where. We do not have the resources to explore even our entire galaxy, let alone the universe.

    • by Rakishi (759894)

      If there is life on those moons then it's under a kilometer+ of ice and probably under another many kilometers of water (I think there is over 50km of ice and water covering that moon). If there is life on mars then it's either dead (ie: used to be life), well hidden or very scarce. Sending a probe out randomly will simply say that whatever desolate spot it hit doesn't have life. Probes are expensive to make, expensive t send places and slow in getting there so you have to aim them well. Thus you get into

    • Seriously, why is that so hard?

      It's not hard, as long as enough people like you, send in their checks.

      But nobody puts their wallet where their mouth is.

    • by SlashDev (627697)
      The only problem with that is that those rovers must be built differently for different planets, because of atmospheric variations. This is very costly. It really is all about money (or the lack of it). The technology exists.
    • Just be sure to sterilise the probe[1]. Otherwise the answer could be "Yes, there is life there ... now".

      [1] it's left as an exercise for the reader to insert a Uruanus joke here.

      • Unless you're sending the probe to Uranus (for some reason), in that case don't bother with the cleaning, just make sure the exterior is well-lubricated or you'll be sorry. Also if you want to pick up anything on camera, fit the probe with lights (with wipers), 'cuz that place doesn't get a lot of sunlight.

    • by Zakabog (603757)

      The only problem with stories like this is that we either don't actually do it, or we DO do it and get results that tell us nothing useful (as far as the question of E.T. life). Why can't they just :

      1. Design and build rover/robot/probe whose sole task is to find and identify life on another planet/moon/whatever.

      2. Deploy said rover/robot/probe.

      3. Get definitive answer - Yes there is/yes there was actual life here, or No there isn't/no there wasn't actual life here.

      4. Rinse and repeat.

      Seriously, why is that so hard?

      Life on another planet may be so far removed from life on our own planet that detecting it becomes close to impossible. How do you know what to look for unless you've seen it before? You can determine "No, there is no life AS WE KNOW IT existing on this celestial body" but that doesn't really answer the question of whether or not there is life at all.

  • by mfh (56) on Monday November 03, 2008 @05:05PM (#25618635) Homepage Journal

    Extra-terrestrials will taste good with some fava beans, and a nice Chianti.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Coraon (1080675)
      actually if its living in cold water and it is on the primitive scale my guess is it'll look like a freaky lobster, so it will probably go better with a white wine and a nice butter sauce...
      • by mfh (56)

        it'll look like a freaky lobster, so it will probably go better with a white wine and a nice butter sauce...

        These are extra-terrestrials, not terrestrial lobsters. They have red meat, magically. Plus red meat is more likely to host higher functioning mammalian lobsters than typical crustacean chicken meat. Dolphin meat tastes more like steak than shark meat, due mostly to the higher brain functions found in dolphins. LOL

        • Dolphin meat tastes more like steak than shark meat, due mostly to the higher brain functions found in dolphins.

          I'd hazard a guess that it has far more to do with the fact that dolphins are mammals, and sharks are fish.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 03, 2008 @05:05PM (#25618637)

    I am sure their Enceladus are teaming with bacteria from the unwashed hands of the employees who prepare them.

  • "[Enceladus' water vapor] plume's origin is still being debated"

    Maybe it is a norwegian blue parrot [google.com]. They have lovely plumage.

  • by alexborges (313924) on Monday November 03, 2008 @05:26PM (#25618919)

    It may NOT find life there...

    Wow, the things that happen in this crazy solar system.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Mistshadow2k4 (748958)
      Yeah, that's kind of what I thought. Could? They could find some strange new form of life in my purse or any single man's refrigerator.
  • by Mr. McGibby (41471) on Monday November 03, 2008 @05:29PM (#25618963) Homepage Journal

    I wrote a paper in a college astronomy course where I speculated that Enceladus might have life given the water there. I was given a lower grade because of it.

    Vindication is sweet.

  • by sighted (851500) on Monday November 03, 2008 @05:33PM (#25619009) Homepage
    Just a few days ago, Cassini buzzed close by Enceladus and took high-res shots [nasa.gov] of the fissures where the geysers originate. Earlier this month during an even closer pass, the spacecraft took direct samples of the plume.
  • Misleading Summary (Score:4, Insightful)

    by CheshireCatCO (185193) on Monday November 03, 2008 @05:42PM (#25619115) Homepage

    I think that the summary (and to a lesser extent, the story) only accurate if you don't think that Cassini is already looking for signs of life on Enceladus. In fact, Enceladus has become (with Titan) one of the most important mission objectives for Cassini. As the story points out, the kind of data that would help address the possibility of life has already been collected (and will no doubt continue to be collected).

    In other words, this isn't repurposing, it's a story about what's already being done.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Tablizer (95088)

      In fact, Enceladus has become (with Titan) one of the most important mission objectives for Cassini.

      One downside to the life idea is that some speculate that Enceladus's warm condition may be periodic due to a recent but no-longer-existing orbit arrangement with another moon(s). If this is the case, then the moon may not stay warm long enough for life to get a foothold. While earth life is capable of "hibernating" in frozen conditions between cycles, it probably took a while before it got sophisticated eno

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by CheshireCatCO (185193)

        It depends on how long the warmth lasts. Life on Earth arose fairly quickly after things got habitable. (A few hundred million years is, I believe, now the best figure.) So it's possible for Enceladus to develop life quickly, too, if conditions were suitable.

        Also, you're forgetting the issue of accessibility. Europa's liquids are under at least a kilometer of ice, perhaps as much as ten kilometers. Enceladus's liquids are not only probably near the surface (tens to hundreds of meters), they're spewing

        • by Tablizer (95088)

          Life on Earth arose fairly quickly after things got habitable.

          Arising quickly and being able to hibernate (or sporify) for long periods of time are two different things.

          Also, you're forgetting the issue of accessibility ... they're spewing into space so that no drilling is even required to reach them.

          True. But couldn't methane etc. also be detected by spectrographing Europe's surface from orbit? The suspected upflows seen on its surface would have such compounds it would seem. Why would spectrographing mi

          • Arising quickly and being able to hibernate (or sporify) for long periods of time are two different things.

            You miss the point. If life arises in a few hundred million years, if Enceladus were only active that long, that's enough for there to be a chance. A hundred million years is fast over solar system timescales.

            Why would spectrographing mist be better than spectrographing the surface?

            You answered your own question: you can sample the mist in-situ and examine it when it's pristine (before radiation and other damage has affect it and before outside contaminants can interfere). Actual in-situ measurements are often better, and certainly helpful, since molecular spectra, especially

      • by djradon (105400)

        Better bet for life, sure. But more mystery sounds like a better place for closer examination if we can only afford one.

  • I think this whole 'signs of life' headline is just spin to get people interested in what would otherwise be a very dry story. I.e. it is there so that the media has a catchy sound-bite.

    I remember back when the mars rovers made the news, you could count on the phrase 'signs of life' to be in the headline, or in the first sentence summary.

    I don't believe that nasa thinks there is a solid chance of life being discovered, it is more of something that they can say to sell funding for scientific instruments to

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