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Space Trawler Catch of the Day

Larry Stanos

November 26, 2012

Space Trawler Catch of the Day

NASA’s space trawler, the Beagle, sets course for its 42nd crossing of Saturn’s E ring. Previously, Cassini mission scientists had discovered that the ice crystals comprising the planet’s ethereal outermost main ring originated from cryovolcanic geysers erupting from the surface of Enceladus. These plumes serve as a trans-orbital pipeline for material from the moon’s ocean far below its surface to be transported to the E ring and neighboring moons. With the spacecraft’s orbital trajectory designed to minimize the impact velocity of the ice crystals with the trawler’s large “net”, scientists hope to minimize molecular and structural damage to any potential remnants of life residing in these Galápagos Islands which are the E ring. Previous samplings revealed water, carbon dioxide, and ammonia ices containing dozens of unexceptional organic compounds but nervous excitement and bewilderment crept in when the 19th and 23rd crossings revealed several amino acids and even proteins. The age distribution of the ice particles in the E ring likely spans at least one billion years up to and including the present but without the benefit of anything analogous to geological strata, there is no way of knowing which epochs are being sampled during any particular crossing. Now the latest catch of crystals is shuttled into the analyzer chamber where the ices are melted and an electron microscope scans the sample prior to analysis by the mass spectrometer. As has been the case for every previous sample, the newly returned images appear mostly featureless with the occasional grain of inorganic material… Hold on... Hello!

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