Scientists find phosphorus in the underground ocean of Enceladus, Saturn’s moon

Phosphorus is a fundamental ingredient for life, but the fact that scientists have found it on Enceladus does not necessarily mean that it is on this star.

Researchers at the Frank Postberg Institute for Planetary Science at the Free University of Berlin in Germany have identified the presence of phosphorus in the ocean below the surface of Enceladus , one of Saturn ‘s moons .

In a study published in the journal Nature , scientists analyzed the data collected by NASA ‘s Cassini probe to reach this conclusion, which raises more questions about its origin, since one of them is of biological origin.

Enceladus and the Phosphorus

The discovery marks the first time this biomarker has been found in an off-planet ocean.

The analysis indicates that there is phosphorus in the ice particles expelled from the subterranean ocean that escapes in the form of geysers on the surface and ends up feeding Saturn ‘s E ring .

” Phosphorus concentrations are at least 100 times higher in the oceanic waters of formation than in the oceans on Earth,” the authors of the research point out. “They are the product of interactions between carbonate-rich liquid water and rocky minerals on the ocean floor of Enceladus.”

Unlike other studies, such as when phosphine was discovered in the clouds of Venus, it is unlikely that the discovery can be refuted because the phosphorus data “are extremely strong and unambiguous.”

The presence of this component on the satellite had previously been predicted, but it is not until this study that its existence is confirmed.

Because it is important?

The discovery of phosphorus is important in the path of astrobiology, the field that seeks to find life outside of our planet.

This resource is an essential component for the formation of DNA and RNA of living beings on the planet, where chromosomes are formed and genetic information is transported. It is also present in mammalian bones, cell membranes, and ocean plankton.

The point is also key because Enceladus ‘ ice grains already contain a wide variety of minerals and organic compounds, including amino acid ingredients, associated with life on Earth.

However, the researchers are clear when breaking the news: it does not mean that the moon necessarily has life or is inhabited. Despite this, many scientists are excited about the potential path forward.

The finding will now redirect scientists’ efforts to other oceans of icy worlds with similar characteristics to also find phosphorus in their structure.

Cassini and his legacy

The Cassini – Huygens probe was a joint effort by the European (ESA), Italian (ASI) and North American (NASA) agencies to study Saturn and all its satellites.

Cassini was the fourth probe to visit Saturn and is named after Giovanni Cassini, who contributed enormously to the field of astronomy and was instrumental in perfecting the theory of gravitation.

It was the first to enter between the planet and its rings, thus fulfilling its mission before disintegrating in Saturn ‘s atmosphere in September 2017, an end that was chosen to avoid biologically contaminating Titan or Enceladus .

“This latest discovery of phosphorus in the subterranean ocean of Enceladus has laid the foundation for what could be the potential for habitability for the other icy ocean worlds throughout the solar system,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist in the Cassini Laboratory . NASA Jet Propulsion in Southern California who was not involved in the study. “Now that we know that many of the ingredients for life are out there, the question is: Is there life beyond Earth, perhaps in our own solar system? I feel that Cassini ‘s enduring legacy will inspire future missions that could eventually answer that very question.”

Missions like JUICE or Europa Clipper will help to further investigate these issues.