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Enceladus: Home to the Building Blocks of Life

Enceladus, one of Saturn's moons, is the most reflective body in our solar system. This is due to the constant coating of new ice particles on its crust. Ice is not rare in our solar system, but what is under the icy crust of Enceladus is what truly fascinates astronomers.

Enceladus, the most reflective body in our solar system. It reflects about 90 percent of all light from the sun. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)


The Cassini-Huygens Mission

The Cassini-Huygens Mission was a research mission conducted by NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency that was sent to study the Saturnian system, including its rings and numerous moons.

This mission helped scientists discover that under the thick layer of ice on Enceladus's surface, there is a liquid ocean filled with salty waters and possibilities. The Cassini-Huygens Mission was able to observe the erupting water plumes shooting from Enceladus into space.


The Possibility of Life

In order for life to sustain itself on a planet, it is crucial for a planet to have the six essential chemical elements, liquid water, and a source of energy. Before the launch of Cassini, scientists were not aiming to dive deep into the research of Enceladus, as there was only speculation that something unique was occurring on it. It was not until after Cassini was launched that scientists were prompted to look further into the activity on this moon. Data from the magnetometer aboard the spacecraft hinted that something, like an atmosphere, was pushing against Saturn's magnetic field near Enceladus. This meant that energy must have been radiating from Enceladus's surface or core.

A targeted flyby was used to obtain information about this moon, where plumes of water were found to be exploding out of Enceladus's crust. The existence of these water plumes was evidence of an energy source within Enceladus, keeping the ocean from turning into ice. This energy may be due to accretion or radioactivity, but no matter, it is possible that this energy is capable of sustaining life.

Image of the water jets spouting ice and water vapor from around the south pole of Enceladus. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Further cementing the idea that it is possible for life to be sustained on Enceladus, in samples directly taken from this moon's geysers, scientists were able to find phosphate. Phosphate is one of the six essential elements for life, the other five being oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen, and sulfur. Phosphate is essential for the structure of DNA as well as a component of cell membrane structure and adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the body's main energy source. Frank Postberg, a planetary scientist at the Free University of Berlin, says, "It's the first time this essential element has been discovered in an ocean beyond Earth."

The Cassini-Huygens Mission not only unveiled the wonders of Saturn's moons but also ignited hope for the possibility of life beyond Earth. The combined discoveries of an energy source, a liquid ocean, and phosphorus within Enceladus hinted at the possibility of life-sustaining conditions on this distant moon. This also broadens the scope of astrobiology and encourages scientists of the present to continue exploring the cosmos, as well as honoring scientists of both the past and the future.



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