Phosphorus, an essential element for life, would finally be present in the ocean of Enceladus

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Phosphorus, an essential element for life, would finally be present in the ocean of Enceladus

According to previous studies, the phosphorus would be a rare item on Enceladusone of the moons of Saturn. But more recent research has just shown that this element, essential to life as we know it, could be present in large quantities in the ocean of the satellite.

Phosphorus is a vital component of the biochemistry of life. This element provides, for example, support to DNA by combining with sugars. It is also used by cell membranes and bones, but also in the molecule called adenosine triphosphate. The latter transports metabolic energy in the body.


No phosphorus?

Thanks to geysers from inside Enceladus, scientists were able to obtain information about the composition of the inner ocean of the satellite. On several occasions, the probe NASA Cassini passed through these jets of water in order to analyze the chemical composition. The probe then detected elements that are essential to life as we know it. Cassini detected organic molecules like methane, as well as ammonia, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and possibly even hydrogen sulfide.

Despite this long list of elements, scientists did not find phosphorus. A study by Manasvi Lingam and Avi Loeb of Harvard in 2018 concluded that phosphorus could be rare in the ocean of Enceladus because the phosphorus found in rocks on the ocean floor slowly dissolves in water.

The results obtained using a new model

Recently, a new study by Jihua Hao of the University of Science and Technology of China produced results that contradict previous studies. According to Hao and his colleagues, 2018 study used outdated geochemical models from the rocky ocean floor of Enceladus.

According to the explanations of Christopher Glein, principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio and co-author, they discovered evidence showing the presence of phosphorus in the ocean which lies beneath the ice crust of Enceladus.

Hao and his colleagues used a new model based on the latest available data. They simulated how phosphates, which are phosphorus-rich minerals, dissolve from the rocky core of Enceladus. In particular, they found that dissolution rate of a mineral called orthophosphate could be far superior to what previous studies had suggested. This rate would be able to fill the ocean with a concentration high enough to support life in just a few tens of thousands of years.

According to the explanations, one of the reasons for this high concentration is the presence of bicarbonates in the water. These bicarbonates have chemical properties that allow phosphates to accumulate in the ocean.

Anyway, this is just a guess. To be able to confirm the presence of phosphorus in the ocean of Enceladus, a future mission would have to directly detect the presence of orthophosphate or other minerals derived from phosphorus.


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