Saturn’s moon Enceladus is making headlines for scientists this week as NASA has discovered one of its oceans may contain the basic building blocks of life.
NASA analyzed data regarding the water that shoots out of ocean vents from below the moons icy crust. The ocean is under the crust, but the vents are able to shoot out water through cracks in the moon’s surface, and into space. To break down the findings, scientists found both nitrogen and oxygen in the water from the ocean that’s shot out into space. Nitrogen and Oxygen when together can be used as building blocks for amino acids. Amino Acids are complex molecules that connect like Lego’s to make proteins. As we know, without protein, life cannot exist, we all need proteins, carbohydrates and fats to stay alive, all of which we normally get through our diet.
While the scientists only found the compounds that are used to build the actual building blocks of life, the discovery is still hugely significant. Scientists have long suspected that Enceladus would contain some sort of life creating compounds, and have even found organic molecules on the moon before, however, this time they discovered them in the water under the moon’s surface, which is a game changer. The presence of nitrogen and oxygen in the deep parts of Enceladus’s ocean means that the two could undergo a chemical reaction in the water which would turn them into amino acids, and thus, proteins.
Saturn with six of its moons
“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,” Frank Postberg, a co-author of the study at NASA, said in a press release.
According to the press release, these compounds were dissolved in the ocean water below the crust’s surface and evaporated as they reached the surface. Since the moon is extremely cold, the compounds froze into the icy crust, the only thing that made them detectable to scientists were the ocean vents that sent plumes of the ocean water out through the cracks in the surface. This evidence shows that Enceladus could potentially develop the same life creating process that occurs here on Earth.
Surface level image of an underwater volcano erupting
In Earth’s oceans, underwater volcanoes under the ocean floors produce magma that is shot out in the same way the plumes of water are on Saturn’s moon. However for Earth, the magma then breaks through the ocean floor through cracks in the surface and it then mixes with the surrounding seawater. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), this interaction of magma and seawater creates something known as a hydro-thermal vent. These vents spew water that is now rich in hydrogen which induces a chemical reaction that turns organic compounds into amino acids which then work together to build proteins that are “crucial for replicating the genetic information that creates life,” according to the NOAA.
“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 behind the latest discovery, said in a release.
This discovery has inspired NASA scientists to develop even more missions that will further investigate Enceladus and the chemical properties and processes the moon endures to see if the creation of life is actually possible. Additionally, NASA is now planning another mission to Titan, another one of Saturn’s moons, which is known for containing a lot of organic compounds as well. The mission plans to launch a spacecraft to the moon in 2026 and have it arrive on Titan by 2034, and the search for signs of alien life will continue.
Eric Mastrota is a Contributing Editor at The National Digest based in New York. A graduate of SUNY New Paltz, he reports on world news, culture, and lifestyle. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.