The James Webb Space Telescope recently found water plumes exploding millions of kilometres high from the surface of this moon, and astronomers now think it contains everything necessary for life.
The fundamental chemical component for several biological activities, phosphorus, has now been found on Enceladus, the moon of Saturn. The substance, which was found in the frozen grains the tiny moon emits, is probably prevalent in its ocean under the surface.
The discovery that the phosphorous is contained among salt-rich ice grains thrown into space from Enceladus has been made by a multinational team of scientists led by Germany and reported in the journal Nature.
Things of Life
The Cassini spacecraft, which orbited Saturn and its moons, transmitted data back that formed the basis of the finding. From 2004 to 2017, the probe observed the gas giant’s rings and moons throughout its 13-year historic expedition.
The group examined information gathered by Cassini’s Cosmic Dust Analyzer instrument when it took samples of frozen Enceladus particles in Saturn’s E ring.
The researchers had previously established that the ice grains of Enceladus contain a wide range of minerals and intricate organic molecules, including the components of amino acids, linked to known forms of life.
There were significant amounts of salt, potassium, chlorine, and carbonate-containing chemicals in the ice grains of Enceladus, according to earlier analyses. “We previously discovered that the ocean of Enceladus is abundant in a wide range of organic molecules. But now, this new finding makes it evident that the frozen particles that the tiny moon’s plume shot into space contained substantial levels of phosphorus salts. This vital component has never before been seen in an ocean outside of Earth, according to research leader and planetary scientist Frank Postberg.
PHYSPHORUS: Why is it such a big deal?
Phosphorus, one of six chemical elements—the others being carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and sulphur—that are thought to be essential for all life, has up to now been left out of the picture.
It is essential to the construction of DNA and a crucial component of the energy-transporting molecules and cell membranes found in all forms of life on Earth. The study’s main author noted, “It’s the first time this crucial ingredient has been found in an ocean beyond Earth.
Geochemical modelling by the study’s co-authors in Europe and Japan, which demonstrated that phosphorus existed in quantities at least 100 times that of Earth’s oceans, bonded water-soluble forms of phosphate compounds, was one noteworthy feature of the most recent Enceladus finding.
Enceladus, which is around one-seventh the size of Earth’s moon and the sixth biggest of Saturn’s 146 known natural satellites, is now a top contender in the quest for places in our solar system beyond Earth that are livable, if only to bacteria, thanks to the internal ocean revealed by Cassini.
The existence of phosphorus, complex chemical molecules, water, and other essential components of life, according to scientists, simply indicates that a location like Enceladus may be livable, not that it is inhabited.