NASA Data Shows Oceans on Enceladus Contain the Building Blocks of Life

NASA data reveals the existence of organic compounds in the plumes of liquid water that blast into space from the ocean beneath Enceladus's icy crust.

Scientists have now discovered that the most basic ingredients for life are present inside one of the oceans on Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

The discovery was made after scientists analyzed NASA data revealing the presence of organic compounds within the plumes of liquid water that have been seen shooting into space from the ocean that exists beneath Enceladus’s icy crust. The organic compounds, which carry both oxygen and nitrogen, play an important role in the production of amino acids–complex molecules that serve as the building blocks of proteins. Without proteins, life, as we know it on Earth, would have never arisen.

The discovery, although revolutionary, doesn’t come as a surprise since experts have long speculated that the oceans beneath Enceladus’s icy crust may harbor the necessary ingredients for life as we know it to exist. The organic molecules had been detected shooting into space from Enceladus before, but this time it’s different since it is the first time that experts have found detected them dissolved in the ocean’s water.

As explained by NASA, “powerful hydrothermal vents eject material from Enceladus’ core, which mixes with water from the moon’s massive subsurface ocean before it is discharged into space as water vapor and ice grains. The newly identified molecules, condensed onto the ice grains, were discovered to be nitrogen- and oxygen-bearing compounds.”

This is a huge step in finding life since it could mean that the compounds may go through deep-sea chemical reactions that create amino acids.

Life on Enceladus?

Cassini shot this false-color image of jets erupting from the southern hemisphere of Enceladus on Nov. 27, 2005. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.
Cassini shot this false-color image of jets erupting from the southern hemisphere of Enceladus on Nov. 27, 2005. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

“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,” explained Frank Postberg, a co-author of the study in a press release.

The compound-bearing plumes shot into space were intercepted by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft as it flew nearby.

The Cassini mission that sniffed out the organic compounds ended in 2017, but the data it gathered throughout its mission will be analyzed and read for decades to come. The scientists analyzed data gathered by Cassini’s Cosmic Dust Analyzer which detected ice grains emitted from Enceladus into Saturn’s E ring. The experts made use of the Cosmic Dust Analyzer’s mass spectrometer to determine the composition of organic material embedded in the grains.

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The Cassini mission was launched in 1997 and spent a total of 13 years exploring Saturn and its many moons. The Spacecraft was then crashed into Saturn as it ran out of fuel.

These compounds, reveal the researchers, which may be another crucial sing that Enceladus may have its very of version o processes that create life on Earth.

Deep inside Earth’s vast oceans, intricate and complex processes take place. There, in the darkness beneath the surface, seawater combines with magma that bubbles upwards through the cracks on the ocean floor. This process creates smoky hydrothermal vents that spew out extremely hot material that can get as hot as 370 degrees Celsius, around 700 degrees Fahrenheit.

These subsurface vents spew hydrogen-rich hot water, fueling the chemical reactions that then transform organic compounds into amino acids. These amino acids stack on top of each other like a stepped-pyramid, forming proteins.

This intricate yet “simple” process makes it possible for life to develop without the need of sunlight.

This is a very important feature since Enceladus’s icy surface acts as a mirror and sends out the little sunlight it does receive back into space. This means that if there is life within the oceans of Enceladus, it most likely developed in the dark.

Experts argue that if there are hydrothermal vents in the subsurface ocean of Enceladus, they could probably work in a similar way to that of our own planet.

“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. 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,” said Nozair Khawaja, who led the research team of the Free University of Berlin. His findings were published Oct. 2 in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.