Enceladus’ Oceans Host Habitable Components

New models for the composition of the subsurface oceans on Saturn’s moon Enceladus have determined that phosphorus should be readily available.

IMAGE: A soda or alkaline ocean (containing NaHCO3 and/or Na2CO3) inside of Enceladus interacts geochemically with a rocky core. Modeling indicates that this interaction promotes the dissolution of phosphate minerals, making orthophosphate readily available to possible life in the ocean. CREDIT: SwRI

“Follow the water” is the theme of much of our quest to find life beyond Earth. From narrowing down the so-called Goldilocks zone to where water can be liquid to the discovery of subsurface ocean worlds, we have pinned our hopes on finding what we recognize as life. Now, scientists led by Jihua Hao have published new models for the composition of the subsurface ocean on Saturn’s moon Enceladus and have determined that a key ingredient — phosphorus — should be readily available. [The paper is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.]

Phosphorus is important for the creation of DNA and RNA, the formation of cell membranes, and even bones and teeth in all manner of animals. Up until recently, much of the data analyzed from the Cassini mission couldn’t prove that phosphorus was contained within that subsurface ocean. So this team of researchers worked up some new thermodynamic models that simulated the water’s geochemistry using that Cassini data. It turned out that phosphate minerals would be “unusually soluble”.

Co-author Christopher Glein notes: The underlying geochemistry has an elegant simplicity that makes the presence of dissolved phosphorus inevitable, reaching levels close to or even higher than those in modern Earth seawater. What this means for astrobiology is that we can be more confident than before that the ocean of Enceladus is habitable.

All we need is a mission to Enceladus.

More Information

SwRI press release

Abundant phosphorus expected for possible life in Enceladus’s ocean,” Jihua Hao et al., 2022 September 19, PNAS

This story was written for the Daily Space podcast/YouTube series. Want more news from myself, Dr. Pamela Gay, and Erik Madaus? Check out DailySpace.org.

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Beth Johnson

Beth Johnson

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Planetary scientist, podcast host. Communication specialist for SETI Institute and Planetary Science Institute. Buy me a coffee: https://ko-fi.com/planetarypan