Phosphorus, a Crucial Element for Life, Discovered on Saturn’s Moon Enceladus

by Hiroshi Tanaka
phosphorus discovery

Dr. Christopher Glein, a prominent scientist from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), played a significant role in a groundbreaking discovery regarding Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The research team, including Dr. Glein, has found compelling evidence of phosphorus—a fundamental building block of life—in the moon’s subsurface ocean. This remarkable finding was made possible by analyzing data collected by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft during its extensive exploration of Saturn’s moons and rings over a period of 13 years.

Dr. Glein, an esteemed expert in extraterrestrial oceanography, explained, “Back in 2020 (published in 2022), we utilized geochemical modeling to predict the presence of abundant phosphorus in Enceladus’ ocean. Now, we have concrete proof of the plentiful presence of phosphorus in the plume ice samples originating from the subsurface ocean.”

The Cassini spacecraft discovered the existence of Enceladus’ subsurface liquid water by analyzing ice grains and gases expelled into space from fractures in the moon’s icy surface. By examining a specific type of ice grain rich in salt, Cassini’s Cosmic Dust Analyzer detected the presence of sodium phosphates. These findings, in conjunction with laboratory experiments simulating Enceladus’ conditions, suggest that phosphorus is readily available in the form of phosphates within the moon’s ocean.

Scientists have inferred that Enceladus’ ocean, with its soda or alkaline composition containing substances like NaHCO3 and/or Na2CO3, undergoes geochemical interactions with its rocky core. This interaction promotes the dissolution of phosphate minerals, making phosphates (such as HPO4-2) easily accessible to potential life within the ocean. The discovery of phosphates by Cassini strongly supports the notion that Enceladus’ ocean is habitable.

Phosphorus, in the form of phosphates, is an indispensable element for life on Earth. It plays a crucial role in the creation of DNA and RNA, energy transportation within cells, the formation of cell membranes, and the development of bones, teeth, and even the microbial ecosystems of the ocean. Without phosphates, life as we know it would simply not be possible.

Dr. Glein emphasized the significance of their findings, stating, “We found phosphate concentrations in the moon’s plume-forming ocean waters that are at least 100 times higher than those in Earth’s oceans. While predicting the presence of phosphates through modeling is one thing, actually discovering tangible evidence is immensely thrilling. This is a groundbreaking result for astrobiology and a significant leap forward in the search for extraterrestrial life.”

One of the most remarkable discoveries in planetary science over the past quarter-century is the prevalence of worlds within our solar system that harbor subsurface oceans beneath icy exteriors. Such worlds include the icy satellites of the gas giants, such as Europa, Titan, and Enceladus, as well as more distant celestial bodies like Pluto. In contrast to Earth, where surface oceans require specific distances from host stars to maintain the right temperatures for liquid water, interior ocean worlds can exist within a broader range of distances. This greatly expands the potential number of habitable worlds across the galaxy.

“Geochemical experiments and modeling demonstrate that these high phosphate concentrations result from increased solubility of phosphate minerals within Enceladus and potentially other icy ocean worlds in the solar system beyond Jupiter,” explained Dr. Glein. “With this discovery, we now know that Enceladus’ ocean fulfills the most stringent requirement for supporting life. The next logical step is to return to Enceladus and determine whether this habitable ocean is, indeed, inhabited.”

The lead author of the Nature paper detailing these findings is Frank Postberg from the Institut für Geologische Wissenschaften at Freie Universität Berlin in Germany. The research team involved scientists from ten institutions worldwide, with Dr. Glein leading the investigation from the United States.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about phosphorus discovery

Q: What did the scientists discover on Saturn’s moon Enceladus?

A: The scientists discovered phosphorus, a key building block for life, in the subsurface ocean of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. This discovery increases the potential for extraterrestrial life.

Q: How was the phosphorus discovery made?

A: The phosphorus discovery was made by analyzing data from NASA’s Cassini mission, which explored Saturn and its moons. The Cassini spacecraft detected phosphates, which are soluble phosphate salts, in ice grains from Enceladus’ plume.

Q: Why is phosphorus important for life?

A: Phosphorus is crucial for life as it is involved in essential biological processes. It is necessary for the creation of DNA and RNA, energy-carrying molecules, cell membranes, and the development of bones and teeth.

Q: What implications does this discovery have for astrobiology?

A: This discovery has significant implications for astrobiology. It provides strong evidence that Enceladus’ subsurface ocean is habitable and increases the likelihood of finding extraterrestrial life within our own solar system.

Q: Are there other celestial bodies with subsurface oceans?

A: Yes, there are other celestial bodies with subsurface oceans, including Europa and Titan, which are moons of Jupiter and Saturn, respectively. These discoveries suggest that subsurface oceans may be common in our solar system and potentially harbor life.

Q: What is the next step following this discovery?

A: The next step is to further investigate Enceladus and potentially return to the moon for more comprehensive exploration. Scientists aim to determine if the habitable ocean on Enceladus is actually inhabited, bringing us closer to understanding the existence of extraterrestrial life.

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CuriousExplorer June 15, 2023 - 9:47 am

whoa, subsurface oceans on moons?! mind blown! enceladus, europa, and titan are like hidden treasures. can’t wait to see what else we find out there.

MoonChild77 June 15, 2023 - 8:33 pm

omg, enceladus is so fascinating! it’s like a hidden world waiting to be explored. can’t wait to see what secrets it holds. fingers crossed for little alien friends!

AstroEnthusiast23 June 15, 2023 - 8:34 pm

wow, this is a major discovery!! finding phosphorus on enceladus is so cool. maybe there’s real aliens out there. exciting stuff!

StargazerDreams June 16, 2023 - 2:31 am

phosphorus, the stuff of life! this is a big deal. if enceladus has it, maybe there’s a chance for life in our own solar system. the possibilities are mind-boggling.

SpaceGeek87 June 16, 2023 - 5:36 am

cassini was like, the best mission everrr! it found phosphates on enceladus?! that means it could have life, right? we gotta go back and check!


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