Life Requires 6 Elements. This Moon Has Them All

Scientists detect phosphorous on the Saturn moon of Enceladus, the last element missing
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 19, 2023 8:21 AM CDT
Updated Jun 24, 2023 6:30 AM CDT
Last 'Ingredient' for Life Found on Saturn Moon
This 2005 image made available by NASA shows plumes of water ice and vapor from the south polar region of Saturn's moon Enceladus.   (NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute via AP)

Scientists have detected phosphorous in the icy mist from one of Saturn's moons. That in itself might not sound like a big deal unless you consider that they previously detected carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, and sulfur there as well. And that might not sound like a big deal unless you reach back to high school chemistry class and remember that all of the above make up the six essential ingredients of life. Meaning, the moon Enceladus now has all six, reports the New York Times. Or as the story by Morina Koren at Atlantic puts it, "Saturn's frozen moon just got a lot more interesting."

"This was basically the last piece that was needed to finally, now, deem Enceladus's ocean to be habitable without any doubt," Frank Postberg of the Free University of Berlin, a co-author of the study in Nature, tells Vice. The discovery came in further analysis from data brought back by NASA's Cassini spacecraft, which did a flyby in 2017. Enceladus' ocean lies beneath the moon's frozen surface, but geysers of spray regularly erupt to reveal its secrets. As CNN notes, this is the first time phosphorous has been detected in an ocean outside of Earth.

The discovery "has set the stage for what the habitability potential might be for the other icy ocean worlds throughout the solar system," says Linda Spilker of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, per a post at NASA. Another NASA scientist, Morgan Cable, tells the Atlantic that if life does exist in the moon's ocean, it might be similar to what's found near hydrothermal vents on the Earth's seafloors—think "all sorts of different microbes, crabs, maybe an octopus or two, tube worms." Postberg sums up to the Times: "We don't know yet if this very habitable place is actually inhabited," he says. "But it is certainly worth looking." (More Saturn stories.)

Get the news faster.
Tap to install our app.
Install the Newser News app
in two easy steps:
1. Tap in your navigation bar.
2. Tap to Add to Home Screen.