On the ocean world Enceladus, NASA has found an element vital to life

On the ocean world Enceladus, NASA has found an element vital to life

There is no evidence of life on Enceladus, which spews giant geysers of water vapor into space.

But NASA believes Saturn’s icy satellite is one of the best places to look.

In new research published in Nature astronomy, planetary scientists investigated discoveries made by the space agency’s Cassini mission, which flew through Enceladus’ carbon-rich water plumes. The researchers concluded that the plume, and thus the ocean beneath the ice, also contained the vital molecule hydrogen cyanide, a “molecule essential to the origin of life,” NASA explained.

“Our work provides further evidence that Enceladus hosts some of the molecules most important in creating the building blocks of life and sustaining that life through metabolic reactions,” study author Jonah Peter, a doctoral student at Harvard who worked on this Enceladus research at NASA, said in a statement. .

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Life on Earth needs amino acids, which are organic compounds found in genetic material and proteins. Hydrogen cyanide is a crucial component in the formation of amino acids.

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“The discovery of hydrogen cyanide was particularly exciting, because it is the starting point for most theories about the origin of life,” Peter said.

NASA's Cassini probe captured these jets of water vapor and organic compounds emanating from the moon's south pole on November 21, 2009.

NASA’s Cassini probe captured these jets of water vapor and organic compounds emanating from the moon’s south pole on November 21, 2009.
Source: NASA / Jet Propulsion Laboratory / Space Science Institute

Enceladus is 314 miles (505 km) wider than the United Kingdom.

Enceladus is 314 miles (505 km) wider than the United Kingdom.
Credit: NASA

Although the Cassini mission ended in 2017, when the spacecraft burned up in Saturn’s atmosphere, scientists are still dissecting all the data it sent back to Earth. They already knew that the plumes contained a lot of water, along with carbon dioxide and methane. But with deeper analysis, they found that it also contained hydrogen cyanide.

but this is not all.

“Our work provides further evidence that Enceladus hosts some of the molecules most important for forming the building blocks of life and sustaining that life through metabolic reactions.”

The researchers also found that organic compounds (i.e. they contain carbon, a common element of life) were altered, specifically “oxidized,” a process that releases energy. In short, this suggests that chemical processes in Enceladus’ ocean, flowing beneath its icy crust, are “capable of providing a significant amount of energy for any life that might exist,” NASA’s Kevin Hand, who co-authored the new research, said in his article. a permit.

Enceladus becomes more interesting. NASA is now considering a proposal to send a spacecraft, a project called Enceladus Orbilander, to this distant moon. The robotic vehicle will fly around Enceladus, then land on its murky, icy surface.

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