Surprise Methanol Detection Points To An Evolving Story Of Enceladus’s Plumes

NASA image of Enceladus within the E-ring in orbit around Saturn, where it is possible that the methanol detection could originate further out in the E-ring. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

July 5, 2017 – A serendipitous detection of the organic molecule methanol around an intriguing moon of Saturn suggests that material spewed from Enceladus undertakes a complex chemical journey once vented into space. This is the first time that a molecule from Enceladus has been detected with a ground-based telescope. Dr. Emily Drabek-Maunder, of Cardiff University, presented the results on Tuesday 4th July at the National Astronomy Meeting at the University of Hull.

Enceladus’s plumes are thought to originate in water escaping from a subsurface ocean through cracks in the moon’s icy surface. Eventually these plumes feed into Saturn’s second-outermost ring, the E-ring.

Drabek-Maunder said, “Recent discoveries that icy moons in our outer Solar System could host oceans of liquid water and ingredients for life have sparked exciting possibilities for their habitability. But in this case, our findings suggest that that methanol is being created by further chemical reactions once the plume is ejected into space, making it unlikely it is an indication for life on Enceladus.”

Past studies of Enceladus have involved the NASA/ESA Cassini spacecraft, which has detected molecules like methanol by directly flying into the plumes. Recent work has found similar amounts of methanol in Earth’s oceans and Enceladus’s plumes.

In this study, Dr. Jane Greaves of Cardiff University and Dr. Helen Fraser of the Open University detected the bright methanol signature using the IRAM 30-meter radio telescope in the Spanish Sierra Nevada.

Image of Enceladus with the location of a possible confined methanol cloud, the methanol spectrum from the study and images of the methanol molecule. Image Credit: E. Drabek-Maunder, background image NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

“This observation was very surprising since it was not the main molecule we were originally looking for in Enceladus’s plumes,” said Greaves.

The team suggests the unexpectedly large quantity of methanol may have two possible origins: either a cloud of gas expelled from Enceladus has been trapped by Saturn’s magnetic field, or gas has spread further out into Saturn’s E-ring. In either case, the methanol has been greatly enhanced compared to detections in the plumes.

Team member Dr. Dave Clements of Imperial College said, “Observations aren’t always straightforward. To interpret our results, we needed the wealth of information Cassini gave us about Enceladus’s environment. This study suggests a degree of caution needs to be taken when reporting on the presence of molecules that could be interpreted as evidence for life.”

Cassini will end its journey later this year, leaving remote observations through ground- and space-based telescopes as the only possibility for exploring Saturn and its moons – at least for now.

“This finding shows that detections of molecules at Enceladus are possible using ground-based facilities,” said Drabek-Maunder. “However, to understand the complex chemistry in these subsurface oceans, we will need further direct observations by future spacecraft flying through Enceladus’s plumes.”