Cassini-Huygens: Could Saturn Hold the Key to Life Outside of Earth?

Saturn’s Moon Enceladus Has Organic Compounds


Saturn Cassini-Huygens Spacecraft (NASA) Public Domain

Saturn Cassini-Huygens Spacecraft (NASA) Public Domain

Cameron Curney, Staff Writer

From the moment Galileo first laid eyes on the sixth farthest planet from the sun, the celestial body has intrigued many astronomers. From its illustrious rings to its many moons, the planet enthralls many. With these defining characteristics, it is not difficult to wonder why the planet has traits that are not consistent with its solar system neighbors. To quench this curiosity, NASA constructed the Pioneer 11 and the Voyagers I and II to conduct brief close up photographic flybys of Saturn.

On October 15, 1997, NASA, along with a collaboration between the Italian and European space agencies, sent the Cassini-Huygens Spacecraft towards Saturn. According to NASA’s science overview of the mission, “…In 2004… Cassini became the first spacecraft to orbit Saturn, beginning a mission that yielded troves of new insights over more than a decade.”  The spacecraft was equipped with six spectrometers to detect celestial object compositions, a radar satellite, a dust particle analyzer, a magnetometer to examine the magnetic field of Saturn, two cameras, and the Huygens space probe set to land on Saturn’s largest moon Titan.

When Cassini reached Saturn in July 2004, the spacecraft began its orbit through the planet’s rings.  Mostly composed of ice, rock and dust, Saturn’s rings are categorized in seven major rings and two gaps. Prior to Cassini’s mission only six major rings were known.

In 2004−while a few thousand kilometers away−the Cassini camera picked up traces of the seventh ring now known as the E-ring.  This ring is made of water ice ejections from the moon Enceladus. Furthermore, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labs Planetary Scientist Shawn Brooks, it may be possible that some rock formations that take place within Saturn’s ring system, can shed some light on the coalescing of our early solar system.

While orbiting Saturn, Cassini photographed propeller like objects that were appearing throughout the outer ring system.  After further study these propeller like objects turned out to be conglomerate rock formations that were combining, due to their shear gravitational strength.  This, Brooks believes, is how early planets may have been formed.

This may mean that the Saturnian moon is the best place to find life outside of the Earth.

— Cameron Curney

Saturnian rings were not the only discovery of Cassini to open a door to our solar systems past.   According to NASA’s science overview of the mission, the further study of Saturn’s largest moon Titan, revealed that the moon,  “ …possesses many parallels to Earth, including lakes, rivers, channels, dunes, rain, clouds, mountains and possibly volcanoes.” Although these geological land forms were caused by an Ethane-Methane liquid, biochemical scientists believe that Titan may tell how some of Earth’s chemical processes began.

Another one of Saturn’s moons made headlines was the object with the greatest albedo in the solar system Enceladus.  When Cassini flew past Enceladus the spacecraft photographed a spray of icy particles ejecting from the planets southern pole, feeding Saturn’s E-ring. What is more interesting is, that the Cassini probe, by using an infrared detection system, noticed that instead of having heat spread equally through the moons core, like most planets and moons, Enceladus had a heated southern pole. Due to this heat imbalance, the moon formed vents to release this heat. These hydro-thermal vents in the planet’s southern pole created a moon-wide subsurface ocean, an ocean with organic ingredients like water, H₂, and varying carbon compounds possible for creating life.  This may mean that the Saturnian moon is the best place to find life outside of the Earth.

With the discoveries collected from the Cassini-Huygens probe, scientists could further their understanding of the Earth as well as other planets in the solar system.  By doing this, NASA scientists are able hypothesize about the functionality of the Earth. Cassini project manager Earl Maze of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said during a news conference Wednesday (Sept. 13). “…We left the world informed, but still wondering, and I couldn’t ask for more…We’ve got to go back — we know it.” Perhaps, with Cassini’s discoveries, one day we may find that we are not alone in the Universe.