07 September 2021
The search for organic biosignatures indicative of life elsewhere in our solar system is an exciting quest that, if successful, will have a profound impact on our biological uniqueness. Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus is a promising location for a second occurrence of life due to its salty subsurface ocean. Plumes that jet out through the ice surface vents provide an enticing opportunity to sample the underlying ocean for biomarkers. The experiments reported here provide accurate modeling of our ability to fly through these plumes to efficiently and nondestructively gather ice particles for biomolecular analysis. Our measured efficiencies demonstrate that Saturn and/or Enceladus orbital missions will gather sufficient ice to make meaningful measurement of biosignatures in the Enceladus plumes.
Enceladus, an icy moon of Saturn, is a compelling destination for a probe seeking biosignatures of extraterrestrial life because its subsurface ocean exhibits significant organic chemistry that is directly accessible by sampling cryovolcanic plumes. State-of-the-art organic chemical analysis instruments can perform valuable science measurements at Enceladus provided they receive sufficient plume material in a fly-by or orbiter plume transit. To explore the feasibility of plume sampling, we performed light gas gun experiments impacting micrometer-sized ice particles containing a fluorescent dye biosignature simulant into a variety of soft metal capture surfaces at velocities from 800 m ⋅ s −1 up to 3 km ⋅ s −1. Quantitative fluorescence microscopy of the capture surfaces demonstrates organic capture efficiencies of up to 80 to 90% for isolated impact craters and of at least 17% on average on indium and aluminum capture surfaces at velocities up to 2.2 km ⋅ s −1. Our results reveal the relationships between impact velocity, particle size, capture surface, and capture efficiency for a variety of possible plume transit scenarios. Combined with sensitive microfluidic chemical analysis instruments, we predict that our capture system can be used to detect organic molecules in Enceladus plume ice at the 1 nM level—a sensitivity thought to be meaningful and informative for probing habitability and biosignatures.