The element phosphorous was first discovered on Enceladus, a moon of Saturn. Phosphorus is one of the rarest of the six elements essential to the formation of life as we know it, having been found in frozen grains spewing from Enceladus’ plumes.
The plumes form from the ocean beneath the frozen crust of Enceladus, which seeps through cracks in the ice. Scientists have already found other “ingredients” necessary for life there, such as carbon and hydrogen, and suspect that Enceladus’ ocean could be rich in phosphorus. However, the item has yet to appear – yet.
The discovery came from NASA’s mission data archive, which also contained information collected by the Cassini spacecraft. Frank Postberg, the professor who led the new study, has spent the past five years studying data from Cassini taken in 2008, when geysers erupted on the surface of Enceladus.
While analyzing the measurements of more than 300 ice grains sampled by the spacecraft, the team found nine prominent grains. the reason? They had a clear imprint of orthophosphate, the only form of phosphorus that living organisms can absorb. “This is the first time this essential element has been detected in an ocean beyond Earth,” Postberg said.
Through experiments, the authors show that Enceladus’ ocean appears to contain phosphorus in the form of phosphates in significant concentrations, which are at least 100 times greater than those found in Earth’s oceans. The high concentration comes from interactions between carbon-rich liquid water and rocky minerals in Enceladus’ oceans, explains Christopher Glenn, co-author of the study.
It also suggests that the component may be abundant enough that Enceladus’ ocean has the potential to support life. But very quiet at the time: Glenn noted that no life form had ever been found there or anywhere other than Earth. “Having the ingredients is necessary, but it may not be enough for an extraterrestrial environment to support life,” he recalls.
The article, along with the results of the study, has been published in the journal nature.
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