Last fall, as NASA’s celebrated Cassini spacecraft spiraled toward its final, fatal descent into Saturn’s clouds, astrochemist Morgan Cable couldn’t help but shed a tear for the school-bus-size orbiter, which became a victim of its own success.
Early in its mission, while flying past Saturn’s ice-covered moon Enceladus, Cassini discovered jets of ice and saltwater gushing from cracks in the south pole—a sign that the body contained a subsurface ocean that could harbor life. When the orbiter began to run low on fuel, it smashed itself into Saturn rather than risk a wayward plunge that would contaminate the potentially habitable world.
Now, from beyond the grave, the spacecraft has offered yet another prize for scientists. New analysis of Cassini data suggests those icy plumes shooting into space contain complex organic compounds—the essential building blocks of living beings.