A source of energy and molecules necessary for the emergence of life – such chemical compounds may be found on Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons. One of them is the building block of proteins. According to scientists, this shows that this distant, icy world may be habitable by living organisms.
Although we have not found evidence of extraterrestrial life, there are many places in the solar system where it could arise. One of the most famous is Enceladus – the sixth largest moon of Saturn. Under the icy shell of a celestial body there is probably a water ocean and in its waves – various organic compounds. In a study published in the journal Nature Astronomy, scientists describe molecules without which life could not arise.
A poison essential to life
Scientists from NASA based their analysis on data from the Cassini-Huygens mission. In 2015, the probe flew through a geyser of ice and water vapor gushing from the surface of Enceladus, collecting information about the chemicals contained in the water. The authors analyzed data from the spacecraft’s mass spectrometer and determined which compounds best matched the received signals.
Modeling showed that the water plumes likely contained hydrogen cyanide. Although we know it mainly as a strong poison, this compound can be used to build amino acids, which then form proteins.
“The discovery of hydrogen cyanide was particularly exciting because it is the starting point for most theories about the origin of life,” explained Jonah Peter of Harvard University, lead author of the analysis.
A powerful source of energy
Scientists have also found evidence that Enceladus’ ocean may contain much more chemical energy than previously thought. In the Cassini-Huygens data, the authors of the new paper managed to find a number of oxidized organic compounds – the oxidation process helps release chemical energy.
“Our results suggest that Enceladus’ ocean may offer something (…) capable of providing life with a large amount of energy,” said Kevin Hand of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, co-author of the study.
Scientists are still far from answering the question of whether life can – or has – formed on Enceladus. As Peter added, this small world seems to not only meet the basic requirements for habitation, but also is a place where complex compounds are formed and various chemical reactions take place.
Main photo source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute