"Cassini was not designed to look for signs of life, and we have not found evidence of life on Enceladus. What we have found is a tantalizing indication that the Enceladus ocean may be a habitable environment," Glein added. "We really need more advanced instruments that can measure biomarkers. The great news is that the plume provides free samples of the ocean in space, so if biomarkers are present in the ocean, they will be accessible."
The Southwest Research Institute is currently building an advanced instrument for the Europa Clipper mission, which should be able to spot traces of life in Europa's plumes. The scientists confirmed that the new instrument is being designed with an eye on what's just been found on Enceladus, but to find out about life on Saturn's moon, we'll have to wait.
"A new mission to Enceladus will be needed to answer the astrobiological questions raised by this study," Glein stated. "A mission called Enceladus Life Finder (ELF) is under study but is competing for the opportunity to fly."
The complex chemistry of Enceladus' ocean is one of the greatest discoveries of the Cassini mission, which is now in its final months of operation. The probe is scheduled to take a swan dive into Saturn’s atmosphere. This singular demise is related to Enceladus and its habitability. The fiery death is the only way to ensure that potential microorganisms that hitched a ride on the spacecraft don't end up contaminating Enceladus.
Artist's impression of the interior of Enceladus, where hydrothermal vents create a chemically active ocean. NASA/JPL-Caltech