Ocean on Saturn’s moon Enceladus has all the ingredients for life, study finds

Planetary scientists have long thought the global ocean beneath Enceladus’ crusty surface could host microbial life. A new study shows it has all the right ingredients for life to exist.

Saturn’s moon Enceladus, known for spewing salty ice into space, has the chemical elements needed for life, a new study using NASA's Cassini mission data shows.

Enceladus has been a favorite of planetary scientists to possibly support life in its underground global ocean because of the water it jets out from surface volcanoes

Cassini’s mission ended in 2017 when the spacecraft dove into Saturn’s atmosphere, but the data collected during its 20-year mission lives on.

Recently scientists used data from Cassini’s cosmic dust analyzer collected from material spewing out of Saturn’s moon Enceladus and found an element abundant in Earth’s oceans: phosphorus. 

Phosphates are essential for the ability to host life; so far, phosphorus has not been detected before in an ocean beyond Earth. 

Planetary scientists have long thought the global ocean beneath Enceladus’ crusty surface could host microbial life. According to NASA, it’s one of the most exciting worlds in the solar system because of the salty water beneath its surface. 

Recently NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope was used to measure the water vapor coming from geyser-like volcanoes on Enceladus. Webb’s Near-Infrared Spectrograph instrument found that water coming from the jets on Enceladus shoots out thousands of miles, leaving a "donut of water" around Saturn, becoming part of the planet’s outermost ring, the E-ring.

The new study in Nature Astronomy looked at ice grains in the E-ring. The science team found high amounts of sodium phosphates in those grains: molecules of chemically bound sodium, oxygen, hydrogen and phosphorus.

"High phosphate concentrations are a result of interactions between carbonate-rich liquid water and rocky minerals on Enceladus’ ocean floor and may also occur on a number of other ocean worlds," said study co-investigator Christopher Glein with Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas. "This key ingredient could be abundant enough to potentially support life in Enceladus’ ocean; this is a stunning discovery for astrobiology."

According to the new study, Enceladus has phosphorus and lots of it, possibly 100 times higher than in Earth’s oceans. The team also used geochemical modeling to show that phosphate may be possible in other worlds with oceans.