The search for extraterrestrial life has gotten more interesting as a team of scientists, including Dr Christopher Glein of the Southwest Research Institute, have discovered new evidence of a key element of life in the subterranean ocean of Earth’s moon Enceladus. Saturn. New modeling indicates that Enceladus’ ocean should be relatively rich in dissolved phosphorus, an essential ingredient for life.
“Enceladus is one of the main targets of humanity’s search for life in our solar system,” said Glein, a leading expert in extraterrestrial oceanography. He is co-author of an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences describing this research. “In the years since NASA’s Cassini spacecraft visited the Saturn system, we have been repeatedly blown away by the discoveries made possible by the data collected.”
The Cassini spacecraft discovered liquid water underground at Enceladus and analyzed samples when plumes of ice grains and water vapor erupted into space from cracks in the moon’s icy surface.
“What we’ve learned is that the plume contains almost all of the basic requirements for life as we know it,” Glein said. “While the bioessential element phosphorus has yet to be identified directly, our team has uncovered evidence of its availability in the ocean beneath the moon’s icy crust.”
One of the most profound discoveries in planetary science over the past 25 years is that worlds with oceans under a layer of surface ice are common in our solar system. These worlds include the icy satellites of giant planets, such as Europa, Titan and Enceladus, as well as more distant bodies such as Pluto. Earth-like worlds with surface oceans must reside within a narrow range of distances from their host stars to maintain temperatures that support surface liquid water. Inner ocean worlds, however, can occur over a much wider range of distances, greatly increasing the number of habitable worlds likely to exist across the galaxy.
“The quest for extraterrestrial habitability in the solar system has shifted focus as we now search for the building blocks of life, including organic molecules, ammonia, sulfur compounds as well as the chemical energy needed to support life,” Glein said. “Phosphorus presents an interesting case because previous work suggested it might be scarce in the ocean of Enceladus, which would dim the outlook for life.”
Phosphorus in the form of phosphates is vital for all life on Earth. It is essential for the creation of DNA and RNA, energy-carrying molecules, cell membranes, bones and teeth in humans and animals, and even the marine microbiome of plankton.
Team members performed thermodynamic and kinetic modeling that simulates phosphorus geochemistry based on Cassini’s information about the ocean-seafloor system on Enceladus. During their research, they developed the most detailed geochemical model to date of how seafloor minerals dissolve in the ocean of Enceladus and predicted that phosphate minerals would be exceptionally soluble there.
“The underlying geochemistry has an elegant simplicity that makes the presence of dissolved phosphorus inevitable, reaching levels close to or even higher than those of modern Earth’s seawater,” Glein said. “What this means for astrobiology is that we can be more confident than before that the ocean of Enceladus is habitable.”
According to Glein, the next step is clear: “We need to go back to Enceladus to see if a habitable ocean is actually inhabited.”
A theoretical model suggests that the salinity of Enceladus’ oceans could be right to sustain life
“Abundant phosphorus expected for possible life in Enceladus ocean”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2022). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2201388119
Provided by the Southwest Research Institute
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