Methane in plumes of Saturn’s moon Enceladus: Possible signs of life?

An unknown methane-producing course of is probably going at work within the hidden ocean beneath the icy shell of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, suggests a brand new research printed in Nature Astronomy by scientists on the College of Arizona and Paris Sciences & Lettres College.

Large water plumes erupting from Enceladus have lengthy fascinated scientists and the general public alike, inspiring analysis and hypothesis in regards to the huge ocean that’s believed to be sandwiched between the moon’s rocky core and its icy shell. Flying by means of the plumes and sampling their chemical make-up, the Cassini spacecraft detected a comparatively excessive focus of sure molecules related to hydrothermal vents on the underside of Earth’s oceans, particularly dihydrogen, methane and carbon dioxide. The quantity of methane discovered within the plumes was notably surprising.

“We needed to know: Might Earthlike microbes that ‘eat’ the dihydrogen and produce methane clarify the surprisingly great amount of methane detected by Cassini?” stated Regis Ferriere, an affiliate professor within the College of Arizona Division of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and one of many research’s two lead authors. “Trying to find such microbes, referred to as methanogens, at Enceladus’ seafloor would require extraordinarily difficult deep-dive missions that aren’t in sight for a number of many years.”

Ferriere and his crew took a special, simpler route: They constructed mathematical fashions to calculate the chance that totally different processes, together with organic methanogenesis, would possibly clarify the Cassini information.

The authors utilized new mathematical fashions that mix geochemistry and microbial ecology to investigate Cassini plume information and mannequin the doable processes that might finest clarify the observations. They conclude that Cassini’s information are constant both with microbial hydrothermal vent exercise, or with processes that do not contain life varieties however are totally different from those identified to happen on Earth.

On Earth, hydrothermal exercise happens when chilly seawater seeps into the ocean flooring, circulates by means of the underlying rock and passes shut by a warmth supply, akin to a magma chamber, earlier than spewing out into the water once more by means of hydrothermal vents. On Earth, methane might be produced by means of hydrothermal exercise, however at a gradual charge. A lot of the manufacturing is because of microorganisms that harness the chemical disequilibrium of hydrothermally produced dihydrogen as a supply of vitality, and produce methane from carbon dioxide in a course of known as methanogenesis.


The crew checked out Enceladus’ plume composition as the tip results of a number of chemical and bodily processes happening within the moon’s inside. First, the researchers assessed what hydrothermal manufacturing of dihydrogen would finest match Cassini’s observations, and whether or not this manufacturing might present sufficient “meals” to maintain a inhabitants of Earthlike hydrogenotrophic methanogens. To try this, they developed a mannequin for the inhabitants dynamics of a hypothetical hydrogenotrophic methanogen, whose thermal and energetic area of interest was modeled after identified strains from Earth.

The authors then ran the mannequin to see whether or not a given set of chemical circumstances, such because the dihydrogen focus within the hydrothermal fluid, and temperature would offer an appropriate atmosphere for these microbes to develop. In addition they checked out what impact a hypothetical microbe inhabitants would have on its atmosphere — for instance, on the escape charges of dihydrogen and methane within the plume.

“In abstract, not solely might we consider whether or not Cassini’s observations are suitable with an atmosphere liveable for all times, however we might additionally make quantitative predictions about observations to be anticipated, ought to methanogenesis truly happen at Enceladus’ seafloor,” Ferriere defined.

The outcomes recommend that even the best doable estimate of abiotic methane manufacturing — or methane manufacturing with out organic assist — primarily based on identified hydrothermal chemistry is much from adequate to clarify the methane focus measured within the plumes. Including organic methanogenesis to the combo, nevertheless, might produce sufficient methane to match Cassini’s observations.

“Clearly, we aren’t concluding that life exists in Enceladus’ ocean,” Ferriere stated. “Fairly, we needed to grasp how seemingly it might be that Enceladus’ hydrothermal vents may very well be liveable to Earthlike microorganisms. Very seemingly, the Cassini information inform us, in keeping with our fashions.


“And organic methanogenesis seems to be suitable with the information. In different phrases, we won’t discard the ‘life speculation’ as extremely unbelievable. To reject the life speculation, we’d like extra information from future missions,” he added.

The authors hope their paper gives steering for research aimed toward higher understanding the observations made by Cassini and that it encourages analysis to elucidate the abiotic processes that might produce sufficient methane to clarify the information.

For instance, methane might come from the chemical breakdown of primordial natural matter that could be current in Enceladus’ core and that may very well be partially became dihydrogen, methane and carbon dioxide by means of the hydrothermal course of. This speculation may be very believable if it seems that Enceladus fashioned by means of the accretion of organic-rich materials provided by comets, Ferriere defined.

“It partly boils all the way down to how possible we consider totally different hypotheses are to start with,” he stated. “For instance, if we deem the chance of life in Enceladus to be extraordinarily low, then such various abiotic mechanisms turn into more likely, even when they’re very alien in comparison with what we all know right here on Earth.”

Based on the authors, a really promising advance of the paper lies in its methodology, as it isn’t restricted to particular techniques akin to inside oceans of icy moons and paves the way in which to take care of chemical information from planets outdoors the photo voltaic system as they turn into accessible within the coming many years.

A full checklist of authors and funding data might be discovered within the paper, “Bayesian evaluation of Enceladus’s plume information to evaluate methanogenesis,” within the July 7 concern of Nature Astronomy.