In the ocean beneath the surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, another essential ingredient for life as we know it appears to be phosphorus. A research group found this out using data from the Saturn probe Cassini and improved models. It was discovered that the steam escaping there “contains almost all the basic requirements for life,” says Christopher Glein of the Southwest Research Institute.
The identified process
(Bild: Southwest Research Institute)
More abundant than in terrestrial oceans
While the element itself has not been detected in the vapor, evidence has been found that it is abundant in the subsurface ocean. The underlying geochemistry makes dissolved phosphorus unavoidable and the element should therefore be even more abundant there than in modern seawater on Earth: “We can now be even more confident that the ocean on Enceladus is livable,” says Glein. Now we must return there to find out if it is actually inhabited.
So far, analyzes have suggested that phosphorus is scarce on Enceladus, which would cloud the prospect of life there, the research team explains. In the form of phosphates, the element is essential for all life on earth. It is required for the formation of DNA and RNA, for energy-carrying molecules, cell membranes, as well as bones and teeth. The search for the element fits the new focus in the search for livable conditions on other celestial bodies. In the meantime, the focus is on proving such basic building blocks.
The fact that there are such oceans under the surfaces of several celestial bodies in the solar system is one of the most important findings of planetary research in recent decades. In addition to Enceladus, there is also evidence of such reservoirs on Jupiter’s moons Europa and Titan and even the dwarf planet Pluto. Whether life really developed in one of them is one of the most exciting questions in current research. But that can only be found out on site. The discovery of phosphorus is now discussed in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
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