YOU ARE HERE: Home > News & Press > Surprise methanol detection points to an evolving story of Enceladus’s plumes

I want information on:

Information for:

NEWS & PRESS

Surprise methanol detection points to an evolving story of Enceladus’s plumes

Last Updated on Tuesday, 04 July 2017 12:18
Published on Tuesday, 04 July 2017 08:17

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, will present the results on Tuesday 4 July at the National Astronomy Meeting at the University of Hull.

 

thumb EnceladusNASA 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. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute. Click for a larger image

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 says: “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-metre radio telescope in the Spanish Sierra Nevada.

 

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

 

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

 

Media contacts

 

NAM press office (Monday 3 – Thursday 6 July)

Tel: +44 (0)1482 467507 / (0)1482 467508

 

Robert Massey

Royal Astronomical Society

Mob: +44 (0)7802 877699

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

Anita Heward

Royal Astronomical Society

Mob: +44 (0)7756 034243

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

Morgan Hollis

Royal Astronomical Society

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

Science contacts

 

Emily Drabek-Maunder

School of Physics and Astronomy

Cardiff University

Mob: +44 (0)7854 421926

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

Images and captions

 

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. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute.

 

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

 


Notes for editors

 

Running from 2 to 6 July, the RAS National Astronomy Meeting 2017 (NAM 2017, http://nam2017.org) takes place this year at the University of Hull. NAM 2017 will bring together around 500 space scientists and astronomers to discuss the latest research in their respective fields. The conference is principally sponsored by the Royal Astronomical Society and the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

T: http://twitter.com/rasnam2017

 

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS, www.ras.org.uk), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organises scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 4000 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.

T: https://twitter.com/royalastrosoc

F: https://facebook.com/royalastrosoc

 

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC, www.stfc.ac.uk) is keeping the UK at the forefront of international science and has a broad science portfolio and works with the academic and industrial communities to share its expertise in materials science, space and ground-based astronomy technologies, laser science, microelectronics, wafer scale manufacturing, particle and nuclear physics, alternative energy production, radio communications and radar.

STFC's Astronomy and Space Science programme provides support for a wide range of facilities, research groups and individuals in order to investigate some of the highest priority questions in astrophysics, cosmology and solar system science. STFC's astronomy and space science programme is delivered through grant funding for research activities, and also through support of technical activities at STFC's UK Astronomy Technology Centre and RAL Space at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. STFC also supports UK astronomy through the international European Southern Observatory.

T: https://twitter.com/stfc_matters