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Ground-based detection of a cloud of methanol from Enceladus: when is a biomarker not a biomarker?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 December 2017

E. Drabek-Maunder*
School of Physics and Astronomy, Cardiff University, Cardiff CF24 3AA, UK Imperial College London, Blackett Laboratory, Prince Consort Road, London SW7 2AZ, UK
J. Greaves
School of Physics and Astronomy, Cardiff University, Cardiff CF24 3AA, UK
H. J. Fraser
School of Physical Sciences, The Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes MK7 6AA, UK
D. L. Clements
Imperial College London, Blackett Laboratory, Prince Consort Road, London SW7 2AZ, UK
L.-N. Alconcel
Imperial College London, Blackett Laboratory, Prince Consort Road, London SW7 2AZ, UK
Author for correspondence: E. Drabek-Maunder, E-mail:


Saturn's moon Enceladus has vents emerging from a sub-surface ocean, offering unique probes into the liquid environment. These vents drain into the larger neutral torus in orbit around Saturn. We present a methanol (CH3OH) detection observed with IRAM 30-m from 2008 along the line-of-sight through Saturn's E-ring. Additionally, we also present supporting observations from the Herschel public archive of water (ortho-H2O; 1669.9 GHz) from 2012 at a similar elongation and line-of-sight. The CH3OH 5(1,1)-4(1,1) transition was detected at 5.9σ confidence. The line has 0.43 km s−1 width and is offset by +8.1 km s−1 in the moon's reference frame. Radiative transfer models allow for gas cloud dimensions from 1750 km up to the telescope beam diameter ~73 000 km. Taking into account the CH3OH lifetime against solar photodissociation and the redshifted line velocity, there are two possible explanations for the CH3OH emission: methanol is primarily a secondary product of chemical interactions within the neutral torus that: (1) spreads outward throughout the E-ring or (2) originates from a compact, confined gas cloud lagging Enceladus by several km s−1. We find either scenario to be consistent with significant redshifted H2O emission (4σ) measured from the Herschel public archive. The measured CH3OH:H2O abundance (>0.5%) significantly exceeds the observed abundance in the direct vicinity of the vents (~0.01%), suggesting CH3OH is likely chemically processed within the gas cloud with methane (CH4) as its parent species.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2017 

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