International Space Agencies – Missions and Discoveries

Cassini Data reveals organic molecules in Enceladus’s Plume


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Enceladus, Cassini, Saturn

Mains level: NA


Central Idea

  • A re-analysis of data from the Cassini mission has revealed a complex mix of molecules in the gaseous plumes of Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

About Cassini Mission

Launch Date October 15, 1997
Mission Agencies NASA, European Space Agency (ESA), Italian Space Agency (ASI)
Primary Focus Study of Saturn, its rings, moons, and magnetosphere
Key Objectives – Study Saturn’s atmosphere

– Investigate Saturn’s rings

– Detailed studies of Saturn’s moons

– Explore Saturn’s magnetosphere

Major Achievements – Successful landing of the Huygens probe on Titan

– Discovery of geysers on Enceladus

– Identification of new moons

– Detailed analysis of Saturn’s rings

Enceladus Discoveries – Detection of water-ice geysers erupting from the south pole

– Indications of a subsurface ocean

– Analysis of organic compounds in the plumes

Significant Milestones – Jupiter Flyby: December 2000

– Saturn Orbit Insertion: July 1, 2004

– Huygens Titan Landing: January 2005

Mission Duration 1997-2017 (including extended missions)

Discovery of Plumes and Initial Analysis

  • Cassini’s Initial Discovery: In 2005, the Cassini spacecraft discovered large plumes escaping from Enceladus’s southern hemisphere.
  • Source of Plumes: These plumes are believed to originate from a subsurface ocean through fissures in the moon’s icy surface.
  • Initial Molecular Findings: Earlier analyses identified water, carbon dioxide, methane, ammonia, and molecular hydrogen in the plume samples.

Re-examination of Cassini Data

  • Research Team: Led by Jonah Peter from the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California.
  • Methodology: The team re-examined data using a statistical analysis technique, comparing it against a vast library of known mass spectra.
  • Newly Identified Molecules: The analysis revealed the presence of hydrocarbons like hydrogen cyanide (HCN), acetylene (C2H2), propylene (C3H6), ethane (C2H6), along with methanol and molecular oxygen.

Significant Discovery of Nitrogen

  • Definite Presence of Nitrogen: The study confirmed the presence of nitrogen in the form of HCN, resolving previous uncertainties due to overlapping signals in mass spectrometry data.
  • Potential for Habitability: The diverse chemical reservoir under Enceladus’s surface suggests conditions that might be consistent with a habitable environment.
  • Support for Microbial Life: The presence of these compounds, along with mineralogical catalysts and redox gradients, could potentially support microbial communities or complex organic synthesis.
  • Caveat on Life Support: The ability of these compounds to support life depends on their concentration in Enceladus’s subsurface ocean.

Get an IAS/IPS ranker as your 1: 1 personal mentor for UPSC 2024

Attend Now

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments


Join us across Social Media platforms.

💥Mentorship New Batch Launch
💥Mentorship New Batch Launch