How to identify cell material in a single ice grain emitted from Enceladus or Europa

Klenner, Fabian; Bönigk, Janine; Napoleoni, Maryse; Hillier, Jon; Khawaja, Nozair; Olsson-Francis, Karen; Cable, Morgan L; Malaska, Michael J; Kempf, Sascha; Abel, Bernd and Postberg, Frank (2024). How to identify cell material in a single ice grain emitted from Enceladus or Europa. Science Advances, 10(12), article no. eadl0849.



Icy moons like Enceladus, and perhaps Europa, emit material sourced from their subsurface oceans into space via plumes of ice grains and gas. Both moons are prime targets for astrobiology investigations. Cassini measurements revealed a large compositional diversity of emitted ice grains with only 1 to 4% of Enceladus's plume ice grains containing organic material in high concentrations. Here, we report experiments simulating mass spectra of ice grains containing one bacterial cell, or fractions thereof, as encountered by advanced instruments on board future space missions to Enceladus or Europa, such as the SUrface Dust Analyzer onboard NASA's upcoming Europa Clipper mission at flyby speeds of 4 to 6 kilometers per second. Mass spectral signals characteristic of the bacteria are shown to be clearly identifiable by future missions, even if an ice grain contains much less than one cell. Our results demonstrate the advantage of analyses of individual ice grains compared to a diluted bulk sample in a heterogeneous plume.

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