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Scientists have determined, using Cassini data, that there are complex carbon molecules spewing from the tiger stripes on Saturn’s moon Enceladus.
Putting it all together, the scientists concluded that the Cassini spacecraft was encountering dust particles rich in carbon in large, complex “macromolecular structures”. The only place this material could have come from was the interior of Enceladus, from which ice, dust and gas is jetting out in geyser-like plumes. These plumes are fed by vapours escaping from a sub-surface ocean.
“So this is a direct sample of the Enceladus ocean,” Khawaja says.
What exactly the newly discovered organic materials are is open for debate, although Khawaja believes they most likely are made of large numbers of ring-like structures cross-linked by hydrocarbon chains. An important hint comes from the fact that the organic-rich grains don’t contain much water, implying that the materials in them don’t easily mix with water. Khawaja hypothesises that they formed deep inside Enceladus, then rose to the top of its underwater ocean, where they formed a thin film akin to an earthly oil slick.
Just to be very clear, they have not discovered life. What they have found however increases the chances that there is life within Enceladus’s underground ocean.