Published in Nature on June 14paperreported the discovery of phosphorus on Saturn’s sixth largest moon, Enceladus. Phosphorus, which is required for the production of DNA and RNA, is an essential element for the existence of life.
The discovery comes on the heels of the James Webb Space Telescope’s discovery in May that Enceladus was emitting a massive 9,600-kilometer plume of ice particles, water vapor and organic compounds into space.
The discovery of phosphorus, which has never been found in oceans other than Earth and was thought to be almost absent on Enceladus, is a major advance in our understanding of the solar system’s ocean world. Saturn’s moon Titan, Jupiter’s moons Europa, Callisto, and Ganymede, some moons of Uranus and Ceres in the asteroid belt are also oceanic bodies.
The new discovery builds on data collected by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which orbited Saturn from 2004 to 2017. During that time, Cassini saw jets hundreds of kilometers across from Enceladus, and its cosmic dust analyzer was able to gather data about ice particles in the jets. .
A new analysis of the data revealed the presence of phosphorus. This is crucial for life hunters. Not only does it require phosphorus for biological processes, but despite being an icy planet, Enceladus has a potentially life-sustaining environment: an underground ocean.
The subterranean sea is where the ice grains were born.
Enceladus is only 500 kilometers in diameter, and is geologically active due to the gravitational pull of Saturn and its other moons. Beneath its icy crust, Enceladus has an ocean of liquid water 40 kilometers deep and a rocky sea floor, making it a prime target for astrobiologists looking for extraterrestrial life.
It is thought that microbes and extreme bacteria may live around hydrothermal vents. This is exactly where researchers believe large amounts of phosphorous could be.
The concentrations of phosphorus detected in the jets in the form of orthophosphate ions are what the researchers estimate could be 100 times higher in the oceans of Enceladus than in Earth’s oceans.
The internal structure of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, based on data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. An ocean of liquid water stretches between the icy crust and rocky core (NASA/JPL-CALTECH)
Orbilander mission to land on the lander
NASA’s OrbiLander mission has a chance to land on Enceladus, confirm the presence of phosphorus, and more. Tentatively scheduled for launch in October 2038 (preliminary November 2039), the Enceladus Orbilander mission will orbit Enceladus twice a day for 200 days to get a closer look at the contents of the exploded water column. The plan is to use more advanced equipment to collect it.
More importantly, Orbelander then landed a small lander on the surface of Enceladus and stayed there for two years, collecting material returned from the aircraft, the stuff that makes the young moon so bright.
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