February 25, 2024

Saturn’s moon Enceladus has an energy source that enables life

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Saturn’s moon Enceladus (foreground) in front of Saturn’s rings, imaged by NASA’s Cassini probe. © NASA/JPL

A NASA research team makes an exciting discovery on Saturn’s moon Enceladus: hydrogen cyanide – a precursor to amino acids and essential for life.

PASADENA – Enceladus, Saturn’s moon, is one of the celestial bodies where life is suspected. The moon is covered with a thick layer of ice on its surface, but underneath there is a liquid ocean. Enceladus spews jets of water vapor and ice into space. NASA’s Cassini space probe examined these so-called “plumes” and found, among other things, carbon dioxide, water vapor, nitrogen and some complex organic compounds. Researchers suspect methanogenesis on Enceladus, a metabolic process in which methane is produced.

Recently, a research team also discovered inorganic phosphorus and ammonia. Now a NASA research team has once again found a “basic building block for life” on the surface of Enceladus. “Our work provides further evidence that Enceladus contains some of the most important molecules needed to create the building blocks of life and sustain that life through metabolic reactions,” explains the study’s lead author, Jonah Peter (Harvard University). . It was the study In the specialized magazine Nature astronomy published.

The sixth largest moon of Saturn
252.1 km
About 500 km

NASA research team finds hydrogen cyanide on Enceladus – the precursor to life

“Not only does Enceladus seem to meet the basic requirements for habitation, but we now also have an idea of ​​how complex biomolecules form there and what kind of chemical processes might be involved,” Peter says in one of the articles. NASA announcement Beyond that. Peter and his team analyzed data from the Cassini space probe and found clear evidence of the presence of hydrogen cyanide. The molecule is an essential component of Earth’s primitive atmosphere and interacts to form many organic compounds that are considered a precursor to the emergence of life on Earth.

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“The discovery of hydrogen cyanide was particularly exciting because it represents the starting point for most theories about the origin of life,” Peter says. Hydrocyanic acid is needed to form amino acids. Its molecules can be put together in many different ways, which is why the research team called it the “Swiss Army knife of amino acid precursors” in their study.

Enceladus’s ocean must have an energy source

But this discovery does not stop there: the research team also discovered that the ocean inside Saturn’s moon must contain a powerful source of chemical energy. It is currently unknown what the source of the energy is, but several organic compounds, some of which serve as fuel for organisms on Earth, seem to indicate this. Among other things, the research team found organic compounds that had been oxidized – an indication that there are many chemical ways to potentially sustain life in the ocean beneath Enceladus’ surface.

“If methane generation is like a small watch battery in terms of energy, then our results suggest that Enceladus’s ocean is like a car battery, capable of providing a significant amount of energy for any life that might exist,” says co-author Kevin. to hand in.

Is there life on Saturn’s moon Enceladus? No evidence yet

Research has not yet been able to detect life on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, but evidence is accumulating. A research team recently discovered that material ejected by Enceladus could be captured by a spacecraft for more detailed analysis. (unpaid bill)