Scientists have made a groundbreaking discovery on Saturn’s icy moon, Enceladus. An analysis of data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has revealed that the underground ocean of the moon contains phosphorus, an essential building block of life used to construct DNA and RNA. The concentrations of phosphorus in Enceladus’ ocean may even be thousands of times greater than in Earth’s ocean.
This discovery is significant as it confirms that Enceladus has all the elements that are essential for life as we know it – carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur, and now phosphorus. Enceladus now appears to meet all of the criteria for a habitable ocean, making it one of the most likely places to house extraterrestrial life.
Enceladus is encased in ice and has an ocean of salty water hidden beneath it. In 2005, the Cassini spacecraft observed geysers blasting vapor and ice grains out of Enceladus’ icy shell. In that space-faring spray, scientists have detected organic molecules. The discovery of phosphorus on Enceladus, along with the presence of other essential elements and organic molecules, makes it an exciting target for the search for alien life.
The researchers believe that the high concentration of phosphorus in Enceladus’ ocean may arise from reactions between seawater and a phosphate-bearing mineral called apatite. Apatite is often found in carbonaceous chondrites, a primitive, planet-building material. The researchers estimate that a kilogram of water from Enceladus’ ocean contains roughly 1 to 20 millimoles of phosphate, a concentration thousands of times greater than in Earth’s ocean.
Furthermore, many other icy ocean worlds may contain apatite, and similarly, they too could also carry high levels of phosphate in their oceans. This richness could be a boon for any potential alien organisms.
However, the discovery raises questions about why such an abundance of chemical energy and nutrients remains if life exists on Enceladus. It’s possible that the moon is simply barren of life, but there’s another more hopeful explanation. Life on frigid Enceladus may simply consume the nutrient at a sluggish pace.
This discovery is a significant step forward in the search for alien life and the potential for life on other icy worlds. The discovery of phosphorus on Enceladus, along with the presence of other essential elements and organic molecules, makes it an exciting target for future missions to explore.