Phosphorus has been discovered on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. This conclusion was based on recently analyzed ice particles ejected from the satellite’s oceanic jets, which were registered by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. This discovery suggests that Enceladus has all the chemical elements necessary for life as we know it on Earth.
This is the last element that confirms: ‘Yes, Enceladus has all the ingredients necessary for normal terrestrial life, and its ocean is suitable for life as we understand it – Morgan Cable, astrobiologist
-chemist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Cassini, which plunged into Saturn’s atmosphere in 2017, collected data by flying through Enceladus’ constantly erupting geysers near its south pole and through Saturn’s E-ring, which also contains particles ejected from the moon. Under the ice crust of Enceladus is a warm subsurface ocean, more than 50 kilometers deep (just imagine), enveloping the entire moon. Eruptions at its south pole blast ice particles into space, allowing research vehicles like Cassini to study ocean chemistry without diving or even touching the moon’s surface.
Data from previous missions indicated that the moon has all the basic building blocks of life – carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, and sulfur – except phosphorus. A team of planetary scientists found nine grains containing phosphate (phosphorus bonded to oxygen atoms) among about 1,000 samples that were initially missed by the researchers. The low amount found reflects the rarity of phosphorus. Among the six biologically essential elements, phosphorus is the rarest in space.
Of course, the presence of conditions for life on Enceladus does not necessarily mean that life exists on the moon. “The next step is to find out if it’s habitable, and that will require a future mission to answer,” Cable said. “But it’s exciting because it makes Enceladus an even more attractive place to conduct such a search.”
NASA will get a chance to learn more when the Dragonfly mission leaves for Saturn’s moon Titan in 2027; another proposed mission could arrive at Enceladus by around 2050. In addition, the James Webb Space Telescope could help further reveal the chemistry of Enceladus’ warm ocean.