A source of energy and molecules necessary for the emergence of life – such chemical compounds can be found on Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons. One of them is the building block of proteins. According to scientists, this indicates that this distant icy world may be habitable by living organisms.
Although we have found no 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 there are various organic compounds. In a study published in the journal Nature Astronomy, scientists described molecules without which life could not have arisen.
Poison is necessary for life
NASA scientists based their analysis on data from the Cassini-Huygens mission. In 2015, the probe flew past a geyser of ice and water vapor flowing from the surface of Enceladus, collecting information about the chemicals in the water. The researchers analyzed data from the spacecraft’s mass spectrometer and determined which compounds best matched the received signals.
Modeling has shown that the water columns likely contain hydrogen cyanide. Although we know it primarily as a powerful 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 this analysis.
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 were able to find a number of oxidized organic compounds, where the oxidation process helps release chemical energy.
“Our results suggest that Enceladus’s ocean may offer something (…) capable of providing life with a significant amount of energy,” said Kevin Hand of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a co-author of the study.
Scientists are still far from answering the question of whether life could form on Enceladus or whether it has already formed. As Peter added, this small world seems to not only meet basic requirements for habitation, but is also a place where complex compounds are formed and various chemical reactions take place.
Main image source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
“Prone to fits of apathy. Introvert. Award-winning internet evangelist. Extreme beer expert.”