The recent discovery of phosphorus on Saturn’s sixth-largest moon, Enceladus, is giving a strong sense of potential for life beyond Earth. According to NASA, these elements, including phosphorus, are essential for habitability and had never been detected in an ocean outside of our own planet.
The discovery, which was reported in the journal Nature, fills in the final piece of the puzzle for Enceladus’ ocean, making it the only ocean outside of Earth holding the full set of elements necessary for life — phosphorus as well as carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and sulfur.
As modern methods give us better insights into our solar system, the evidence collected helps to further answer questions surrounding the potential for life beyond Earth. In this particular discovery, the data came from the Cassini spacecraft as it analyzed salt-rich ice grains ejected from the moon’s ocean.
Between 2004 and 2017, different minerals and organic compounds were revealed within the ice, including sodium, potassium, chlorine, and carbonate-containing compounds. Phosphorus is thought to be the least abundant element of these essential six needed for biological processes.
The influence of phosphorus is unmistakable; this vital element is an integral part of DNA, bones of mammals, and cell membranes. It is the holy grail of amino acids, without which life on Earth certainly would not exist.
As for Enceladus, researchers are hopeful about what this discovery implies for its habitability, yet they also make it clear that no actual life forms have yet been found here or anywhere else in the solar system outside of Earth.
In preparation for the 2024 Europa mission, this type of exploration is essential in order to ascertain whether life could have originated within Enceladus’ ocean. While only navigating its outer depths currently, the study of the oceans beneath the frozen surfaces of Jupiter’s moons should further our understanding of what is possible within our solar boundaries. For now, this most recent find is a remarkable one and has left scientists eager to explore.