A sign of life beyond Earth? Scientists discover phosphorus on Saturn’s moon

Enceladus, Moon of Saturn
Enceladus, Saturn’s sixth largest moon, photographed by the Cassini spacecraft in 2009. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.
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Phosphorus is one of the six elements considered crucial for the existence of life. and, interestingly, so far it has not been detected in the oceans outside of Earth. This means that the search for extraterrestrial life in our solar system has just taken a turn. big leap!

A group of researchers, led by scientist Frank Postberg, from the Free University of Berlin, Germany, have identified the presence of phosphorus on Enceladus, one of the moons of Saturn, which greatly increases the chances of existence of life on the frozen satellite.

Enceladus is Saturn’s sixth largest moon, measuring 504 km in diameter, covered by a layer of ice under which is liquid water. Discovered in 1789 by the German astronomer William Herschel, it is considered one of the most promising places for the search for extraterrestrial life.

The discovery was recently published in the journal Nature and, according to the researchers, the amount of phosphorus found suggests there may be a abundance 100 times greater than what we have here on Earth.

How did they find the item?

The satellite has cracks in its icy surfacethrough which they are ejected huge plumes of ice grains and water vapor in the space. Researchers have detected one of these “surprisingly large” plumes coming out of the south pole of Enceladus, which could be a sign of life.

plumes, Enceladus, space, grains of ice
Enceladus has long fissures in its icy surface that eject huge plumes of ice grains and water vapor into space. Credit: Illustration by Tobias Roetsch/Getty Images.

Therefore the probe cassini (a joint project of NASA and the European-ESA and Italian-ASI space agencies) studied the composition of the ocean of Enceladus by analysis of the materials ejected by this plume. The analysis made by Cosmic dust analyzer (CDA) of the identified probe compounds containing phosphorus in the vapor expelled by the plume.

“ADC detection of ice grains with high concentrations of orthophosphates indicates that phosphorus is readily available at the top of the ocean of Enceladus, i.e. in the source region of the plume. Even within a conservative margin, our estimate indicates concentrations on the order of at least hundreds of micromolars, several hundred times the average abundance of phosphate in Earth’s oceans,” Postberg said.

But where does phosphorus come from?

Enceladus he is very small, he only has one-seventh the size of our Moon, but there’s a lot going on beneath its frozen surface. when the probe cassini detected for the first time erupting geysers, revealed the presence of a huge ocean under its crust, which was kept liquid by the heat resulting from the gravitational interaction between the moon and Saturn.

Phosphorus is one of the six elements considered crucial for the existence of life, along with carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen and sulfur.

Moreover, it is believed that under its ocean there is a core composed of a type of rock called “carbonaceous chondrite”. So the researchers analyzed that too and found that the game is a product What results from the interaction between seawater alkaline and rich in carbonates and said rock.

The other five essentials have already been identified in the plume shows on Enceladus.. However, Postberg said in an interview: “With the previous findings of the cassiniwe know that Enceladus has conditions conducive to the appearance of life, but we have no idea if it is really inhabited”.

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