New research has provided evidence of a key element of life in the underground ocean of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The model shows that the ocean on Enceladus is relatively rich in dissolved phosphorus, which is an essential ingredient for life.
Christopher Glein said: “Enceladus is one of humanity’s main goals in the search for life in our solar system. In the years since NASA’s Cassini spacecraft visited the Saturn system, we I was constantly blown away by the discoveries that could be made from the data collected,” the paper’s co-author.
Glein is an expert in extraterrestrial oceanography. NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has detected liquid water underground on Enceladus and analyzed samples of plumes of ice particles and water vapor spewing out into space from cracks in the planet’s icy surface.
“What we have learned is that the plume contains almost all the basic requirements for life as we know it. Although the biopotentially bioavailable element phosphorus has yet to be directly identified, our team has discovered evidence of its availability in the ocean beneath the moon’s icy crust.”
“The search for extraterrestrial habitability in the solar system has shifted focus as we are now searching for the building blocks of life, including organic molecules, ammonia, sulfur compounds as well as as the chemical energy needed to support life. Phosphorus presents an interesting case because Glein previously explained that it could be scarce in the ocean of Enceladus, reducing the prospects for life.
Worlds with oceans under a layer of ice are not uncommon in our solar system. Icy satellites of giant planets, such as Europa, Titan, and Enceladus, fall into this category. Even Pluto has a similarly icy underground ocean. For oceans to exist on the surface like on Earth, they must be in close proximity to their star to maintain a temperature at which water doesn’t freeze or boil. But the worlds inside the ocean can exist at a much wider distance.
Phosphorus in the form of phosphate is needed for the creation of important organic compounds ranging from RNA and DNA to energy-carrying molecules and from cell membranes to bones and teeth.