Scientists have detected the basic ingredients for life from an ocean on Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons. Analysis of NASA data shows the presence of organic compounds in plumes of liquid water shooting into space from the ocean. The findings appear in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society journal.
These compounds contain nitrogen, oxygen and play a major role in creating amino acids, the building blocks of protein. Researchers previously detected organic molecules from the moon but this is the first time molecules were found to be dissolved in water. This indicates that compounds could take part in chemical reactions under the sea leading to amino acids.
Frank Postberg, one of the study’s authors said that this work reveals the building blocks that are abundant in the ocean of Enceladus. This is a positive indication to carry out research for the habitability of the moon. Jets of ocean water and ice shoot out into space regularly through the cracks in the crust of the moon.
The compounds were dissolved in the ocean water which then evaporated with surface water finally getting condensed and frozen into the crust of the moon. They were carried into space by the plumes and detected by Cassini spacecraft of NASA. This is an indication that Enceladus might have its own method of generation of life.
In the oceans of Earth, seawater combines with magma which comes out through the cracks in the ocean floor. This results in the production of hydrothermal vents whose temperature can rise till 370 degrees Celsius. The water from these vents is rich in hydrogen, catalyzing chemical reactions of organic compounds into amino acids. These then combine to form proteins, one of the main components of life. This method works without sunlight and this is significant in the case of Enceladus where the sunlight is reflected back to space in its entirety. So life has to develop in the dark.
Nozair Khawaja, the research team leader said that the molecules might follow the same pathway in oceans of Enceladus as that of Earth. The discovery of molecules forming amino acids is quite significant. The compounds discovered by the team last were not soluble in water hence researchers were not sure if the organic molecules on Enceladus were capable of life formation.
Cassini was launched in 1997 and it spent 13 years in the exploration of Saturn and its moons. Scientists purposefully crashed the spacecraft into Saturn thereby ending its mission as they did not want to contaminate Enceladus or Titan in any manner.
Cassini found a global ocean containing liquid saltwater below the surface of Enceladus and captured images of water jets shooting to space. The data about their composition was collected in 2008. Scientists will continue studying the data collected by Cassini as NASA also plans of sending a probe to Titan, another moon of Saturn which also contains organic compounds. Dragonfly, a nuclear-powered helicopter will start for Titan in 2026 and arrive in 2034.