Nasa’s quest for alien life: A single grain of ice could hold the key

NEW DELHI: Lab experiments have shown for the first time that spacecraft traversing through ice plumes in space might aid in identifying extraterrestrial life.
This detection is possible even from minute portions of a cell contained within ice grains. If extraterrestrial life exists on moons such as Saturn’s Enceladus or Jupiter’s Europa, the massive geysers erupting from these celestial bodies into space present a promising method for uncovering signs of life.These geysers, originating from vast subsurface oceans, eject ice grains which could carry bacterial cells and organic molecules into space.
“This new research shows that Nasa only needs to grab a few grains of ice from these plumes to find out for sure,” a Live Science report said.
Fabian Klenner, a researcher from the University of Washington and the principal investigator of the new study, expressed amazement at the sensitivity of current instruments in detecting bacterial cells within these ice grains. Despite the potential scarcity of bacterial cells among the vast quantity of ejected ice grains, the precision of modern analytical tools means that even a minimal presence can be detected.
In laboratory settings, the research team simulated conditions akin to those found on Enceladus or Europa by mixing freeze-dried bacteria cells with water, creating a scenario where each water droplet contained approximately one bacterial cell. The experiment involved injecting this mixture into a vacuum chamber and analyzing the droplets using mass spectroscopy, similar to analyses that could be performed by spacecraft. The detection of amino acids and fatty acids was a clear indication of the presence of bacterial cells.
As per the Live Science report, the implications of these findings are significant for future space missions. For example, the upcoming Europa Clipper mission to Jupiter’s moon could dramatically increase the probability of detecting extraterrestrial bacterial cells by sampling tens to hundreds of thousands of individual ice grains.
The study underscores the potential of existing and forthcoming space missions in the search for alien life within our solar system. By collecting and analyzing just a small number of ice grains from moons’ plumes, scientists hope to uncover signs of life, assuming such life forms are willing to be encased within those grains originating from subsurface aquatic environments.


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