Biologists Discover Soda Ocean On Saturn's Icy Moon Enceladus Has Ingredients For Life

hero cassini spacecraft flying over enceladus
Researchers have discovered that Enceladus's ocean should contain phosphorus, one of the basic elements for terrestrial life. The scientists used geochemical modeling to predict just how much phosphorous could be present in the ocean of Saturn's moon Enceladus.

Observations by the Cassini spacecraft have already allowed scientists to determine Enceladus has an ice-covered water ocen that spews a plume of many of the basic requirements of terrestrial life. One element that had not been detected had been the presence of phosphorous. However, a new model created by a group of researchers suggests that Saturn's moon should be rich in dissolved phosphorous.

"We weren't expecting this. We didn't look for it," explained Frank Postberg, a planetary scientist at the Free University of Berlin and lead author of the new study. Postberg described the find of phosphates as a "tantalizing moment."

image from cassini of enceladus eruptions
Modeled eruptions on Enceladus as uniform curtains along fractures that stretch across Enceladus.

This is the first time phosphorus has been detected in an ocean other than Earth. The team says the discovery means that all of the elements that are essential to life as we know it are present in the icy ocean of Enceladus. Phosphorus is the rarest bio-essential ingredient in the cosmos, according to the scientists who partook in the study. It is a key ingredient in human bones and teeth. The other five ingredients that had been previously found on Enceladus were carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, and sulfur.

While earlier research had led scientists to believe phosphorus should be rare on other planets, Enceladus is the "exact opposite," according to Postberg. He added that rather than lacking the chemical, the moon's ice-ocean was "enriched compared to Earth's oceans by a factor of 1,000 or so."

The team studied 345 ice grains that Cassini studied as the spacecraft flew through Saturn's "E-ring". The team analyzed the grains with Cassini's Cosmic Dust Analyzer, which showed nine of the icy particles found had traces of the presence of phosphates.

saturn with moon enceladus

A few of the researchers continued to look into the presence of phosphates at the Tokyo Institute of Technology by simulating the geochemical interactions between the ocean's water and its floor. They found that the alkaline waters of Enceladus are rich in carbonates, which led Postberg to remark, "You could call it a 'soda ocean.'"

"Using a model to predict the presence of phosphate is one thing, but actually finding the evidence for phosphate is incredibly exciting," exclaimed Dr. Christopher Glein, a leading expert in extraterrestrial oceanography and co-author of the new study. "This is a stunning result for astrobiology and a major step forward in the search for life beyond Earth."

Glein says the next logical step in the process is to go back to Enceladus to determine if its habitable ocean is in fact inhabited.