Scientists have made an exciting discovery about Enceladus, a small moon of Saturn. They found phosphorus, an important element for life, in icy grains that are emitted from the moon. These grains contain a variety of minerals and organic compounds associated with life, including the ingredients for amino acids.
Enceladus has a subsurface ocean, and water from this ocean erupts through cracks in the moon’s icy crust, creating geysers at its south pole. These geysers release a plume of particles into space, which eventually contribute to Saturn’s E ring.
During NASA’s Cassini mission, which explored Saturn from 2004 to 2017, the spacecraft flew through the plume and E ring multiple times. Scientists discovered that Enceladus’ ice grains contain significant amounts of phosphorus salts. Phosphorus is a crucial element for life as we know it, as it is a building block for DNA and is present in various biological structures.
This discovery is groundbreaking because phosphorus had not been detected on Enceladus before. It emphasizes the importance of this element for life. Previous analysis of Enceladus’ ice grains revealed other elements and compounds favorable for habitable conditions.
To conduct the study, the scientists accessed data collected by Cassini’s instruments, particularly the Cosmic Dust Analyzer, which sampled the icy particles in Saturn’s E ring. Additional experiments and modeling confirmed the presence of phosphorus in Enceladus’ ocean.
While this finding provides the necessary ingredients for life, it does not confirm the existence of life on Enceladus or elsewhere in the solar system. Further research and future missions will be needed to answer that question. Nonetheless, Cassini’s mission and data continue to be invaluable in our quest to understand the potential habitability of other icy ocean worlds in our solar system.
The Cassini-Huygens mission was a collaborative effort involving NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Italian Space Agency. The mission was managed by JPL, which is a division of Caltech located in Pasadena, California. JPL was responsible for overseeing the mission on behalf of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. They were also responsible for the design, development, and assembly of the Cassini orbiter.
Image Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute