CHICAGO — The last key ingredient to life has been discovered on Saturn’s cold moon Enceladus.
Phosphorus is a vital building block of life, used to construct DNA and RNA. Now, analysis of data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft indicates that Enceladus may contain a crucial nutrient-rich subsurface ocean. Not only that, there may be thousands of its concentrations in the Earth’s oceans, planetary scientist Yasuhito Sekine reported on December 14 at the American Geophysical Union Fall meeting.
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The essential element may also abound on many other icy worlds, holding the promise of finding alien life, said Sekine, of the Tokyo Institute of Technology.
“We know that Enceladus had most of the elements that are necessary for life as we know it – carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen and sulfur,” says Morgan Cable, an astrobiologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. not an expert in research. “But now” [phosphorus] It has been confirmed … Enceladus now seems to meet all the criteria for a habitable ocean.
Many researchers believe that Enceladus is among the most likely places to house extraterrestrial life. The world is encased in ice, with salt water lurking beneath the ocean.SN: 11/6/17). What’s more, in 2005 the Cassini crew observed geysers and ice grains erupting from Enceladus’ icy shell (SN: 8/23/05). And in that space shower, scientists discovered organic molecules.
But until now, researchers were not sure if phosphorus even existed on Enceladus. On the surface of the Earth, the element is relatively scarce. Much phosphorus is locked up in minerals, and its availability often controls the degree to which life can proliferate.
Thus, Sekine and colleagues collected chemical data, collected by the now-defunct Cassini, of particles ejected into Saturn’s rings, a halo of material encircled by Saturn’s ejecta from Enceladus.
Some ice grains in the E ring are enriched in a phosphorus compound called sodium phosphate, the researchers found. They estimate that a kilogram of water from Enceladus’ ocean contains approximately 1 to 20 millimoles of phosphate, a concentration thousands of times greater than in Earth’s great blue ocean.
In the subsurface area of Enceladus’ ocean, phosphates can arise from reactions between seawater and the phosphate mineral apatite, Sekine said, before being ejected into space by geysers. Apatite is often found in carbonaceous chondrites, the primary, planet-building materialSN: 7/14/17).
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But there is no such thing. Many of the world’s other glacial oceans also contain apatites, called Sekine. Likewise, phosphate levels in their oceans can also be high. Those riches could be of benefit to any alien power organism.
Although the findings are promising, they pose a grim conundrum, Sekine said. “If life exists” [on] Enceladus, why? [does] such [an] chemical supply of energy and nutrients remain? “After all, here on Earth, available phosphorus is rapidly depleted by life.
It is possible that the moon is simply barren of life, Sekine said. But there is also another, more fruitful explanation. Of the cold life of Enceladus, he said, although it takes nourishment in a lazy way.
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