Saturn’s moon is frigid. Enceladus harbours essential elements for life 2023

On Wednesday, researchers found high quantities of phosphorus in ice crystals ejected from Saturn’s moon Enceladus’ inner ocean, indicating its potential to support life.

NASA’s Cassini mission, the first to circle Saturn, acquired data about Saturn, its rings, and moons from 2004 to 2017.

The discoveries were published in Nature by a German-led multinational team of scientists and released by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Los Angeles, which planned and built the Cassini spacecraft.

The same researchers found minerals and complex chemical molecules in Enceladus’ ice grains, including amino acids, which are essential to life.

Phosphorus, the least plentiful of six chemical elements essential to all life, was lacking until today.

“It’s the first time this essential element has been discovered in an ocean beyond Earth,” said Frank Postberg, a planetary scientist at Berlin’s Free University.

DNA, cell membranes, and energy-carrying molecules require phosphorus.

Cassini’s observations of salt-rich ice grains thrown into space by geysers from the subsurface ocean under Enceladus’ frozen crust near its south pole led to the newest research.

The spacecraft collected data while passing through a jet of ice crystals and the material that feeds Saturn’s dim “E” ring with icy particles outside its brighter major rings.

Enceladus, roughly one-seventh the size of Earth’s moon and the sixth biggest of Saturn’s 146 natural satellites, is a great prospect for finding habitable areas in our solar system, even for bacteria, according to Cassini’s discovery of an inner ocean.

Jupiter’s bigger moon Europa may possibly have a worldwide ocean of liquid water under its frozen surface.

Geochemical modeling by the study’s European and Japanese co-authors showed phosphorus concentrations at least 100 times higher than Earth’s seas.

“This key ingredient could be abundant enough to potentially support life in Enceladus’ ocean,” said co-investigator Christopher Glein, a planetary scientist at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “This is a stunning discovery for astrobiology.”

Scientists underlined that phosphorus, complex chemical molecules, water, and other life-building ingredients only indicate that Enceladus is potentially livable, not that it is populated. No extraterrestrial life has been found.

“Whether life could have originated in Enceladus’ ocean remains an open question,” Glein added.

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