NASA's Cassini spacecraft has detected a very tenuous atmosphere known as an exosphere, infused with oxygen and carbon dioxide around Saturn's icy moon Rhea. This is the first time a spacecraft has directly captured molecules of an oxygen atmosphere – albeit a very thin one -- at a world other than Earth.
The oxygen appears to arise when Saturn's magnetic field rotates over Rhea. Energetic particles trapped in the planet's magnetic field pepper the moon’s water-ice surface. They cause chemical reactions that decompose the surface and release oxygen. The source of the carbon dioxide is less certain.
Oxygen at Rhea's surface is estimated to be about 5 trillion times less dense than what we have at Earth. But the new results show that surface decomposition could contribute abundant molecules of oxygen, leading to surface densities roughly 100 times greater than the exospheres of either Earth's moon or Mercury. The formation of oxygen and carbon dioxide could possibly drive complex chemistry on the surfaces of many icy bodies in the universe.
"The new results suggest that active, complex chemistry involving oxygen may be quite common throughout the solar system and even our universe," said lead author Ben Teolis, a Cassini team scientist based at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. "Such chemistry could be a prerequisite for life. All evidence from Cassini indicates that Rhea is too cold and devoid of the liquid water necessary for life as we know it."