Scientists detect building block for life on Saturn’s moon Enceladus

The moon Enceladus shoots huge clouds of its ocean into space.

Planetary scientists suspect this salty sea may be habitable, meaning it may harbor conditions that support life. Now, new research suggests that the waters of this moon of Saturn are rich in a critical building block for life (as we know it, anyway). It is phosphorus, an important component of genetic and cellular material. It is the second most abundant mineral in our body.

“We found evidence that one of the key elements needed for life on Earth should be abundant in Enceladus’ ocean,” said Christopher Glein, a senior scientist at the Southwest Research Institute, a research and development agency development organization, to Mashable.

“It shows that Enceladus is more habitable than previously thought,” added Glein, who studies the geology of other worlds. The research, which simulated how minerals dissolve in the moon’s sea and allowed researchers to estimate the amount of phosphorus on Enceladus, was recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


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The data for the study came from a legendary NASA mission in 2008, when the space agency’s legendary Cassini probe dove through jets of icy water vapor, gases and organic material spraying from Enceladus’ south pole. The moon, which is as wide as Arizona, immediately became a source of intense intrigue. “The discoveries of Enceladus have changed the direction of planetary science,” Linda Spilker, Cassini’s project scientist, said in a statement. “Planetary scientists must now consider Enceladus as a possible habitat for life,” she added.

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“Phosphorus plays a crucial role in life as we know it.”

But Cassini’s brief fall through the lunar clouds didn’t cover nearly everything in the ocean. And previous research concluded that there isn’t much phosphorus in the seas of Enceladus, boding ill for the habitability of the ocean world.

However, this latest research used updated, more detailed computer simulations of how the geology of Enceladus’ rocky seafloor interacts with the salty seas, a natural process that dissolves phosphorus minerals in the water. Of course, scientists don’t have direct samples of Enceladus’ core — that would require an unprecedented robotic mission to land on a distant moon. But we know the core is rocky (because Cassini interacted with the gravity of Enceladus), and researchers have a wealth of Earth-based meteorites and evidence of other extraterrestrial rocks that provide compelling clues as to what caused the rocky sites in ours solar system exist.

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“We don’t know exactly what the rocky core of Enceladus is made of, but we can make good guesses based on what we’re finding elsewhere in the solar system,” said Geoff Collins, a planetary scientist at Wheaton College who didn’t play a role of research, Mashable said. In addition, Collins noted, Chinese scientists have just discovered a new phosphate mineral on the moon.

Taken together, Glein and his research team are confident they know what is dissolving in Enceladus’ ocean. And it’s a lot of phosphorus. “Phosphorus plays a crucial role in life as we know it,” he said.

the interior of Saturn's moon Enceladus

A graphic showing phosphorus dissolving in Enceladus’ ocean.
Photo credit: SwRI

Feathers shooting from the moon Enceladus

Ice and water vapor shoot out in great plumes from the south pole of Enceladus.
Photo credit: NASA

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Enceladus orbits deep in the solar system, about 800 million miles from Earth. So for the foreseeable future, planetary scientists will have to comb through the data collected by the Cassini probe (probing Saturn and its moons) to deduce what this alien ocean really looks like. “We want people to continue studying the data from Cassini,” said Glein, who noted that this research is another step in the longer-term study of this fascinating moon.

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Someday, perhaps in the late 2040s or 2050s, a space agency like NASA could send a probe to land on Enceladus. Just visiting the moon’s south pole and directly sampling the snow falling from its icy plumes would give researchers an unprecedented insight into what’s happening in the oceans below. The US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recently proposed in an influential planning document that a probe visit and land in Enceladus. (Even now, NASA is sending an orbiter to Jupiter’s Europa satellite in 2024 to “investigate whether the icy moon could host viable conditions.”)

Going to Enceladus is decades away. But that’s planetary science.

“People wait their entire professional lives to answer these profound questions,” said Glein. “You have to have a lot of patience.”

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