Scientists Find Building Blocks of Life on Saturn's Moon Enceladus

Beneath the moon's icy crust lies an ocean that may contain the ingredients for life.
Fabienne Lang

Scientists have studied NASA's data on Saturn's moon Enceladus and its ocean and they've discovered that the basic ingredients for life are present in these waters.

Enceladus is covered in an icy layer. The ocean beneath its icy surface is bursting out plumes of liquid water into space. It is from these spurts of water that the scientists discovered organic compounds. 

These compounds contain oxygen and nitrogen — crucial in amino acid production — that are the key players in creating proteins. It's thanks to proteins that life on Earth exists. 


Ocean on Enceladus

Scientists had suspected that Enceladus' waters may contain the right ingredients to create life. 

Enceladus has water bursting out of its icy layer and into space and NASA scientists studied the chemical compounds the water contains. They discovered oxygen and nitrogen in the water. This is the first instance where these have been detected in the water. 

NASA used their Cassini spacecraft to sense the water plumes. 

Scientists Find Building Blocks of Life on Saturn's Moon Enceladus
With Enceladus nearly in front of the Sun from Cassini's viewpoint, its icy jets become clearly visible against the background. Source: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

This is an incredible discovery, as it means that these compounds could undergo deep-sea chemical reactions. In turn, these reactions could create amino acids

Co-author of the study, Frank Postberg, said in a press release: "This work shows that Enceladus' ocean has reactive building blocks in abundance, and it's another green light in the investigation of the habitability of Enceladus." 

Scientists Find Building Blocks of Life on Saturn's Moon Enceladus
This illustration shows how newly discovered organic compounds — the ingredients of amino acids — were detected by NASA's Cassini spacecraft in the ice grains emitted from Saturn's moon Enceladus. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The scientists believe that Enceladus' ocean may operate much in the same way as our Earth's oceans. "If the conditions are right, these molecules coming from the deep ocean of Enceladus could be on the same reaction pathway as we see here on Earth," said Nozair Khawaja, who led the research team behind the latest discovery.

Khawaja continued, "We don't yet know if amino acids are needed for life beyond Earth, but finding the molecules that form amino acids is an important piece of the puzzle."

The findings were published on Wednesday in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society

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