Photo: Xinhua News Agency
An international research team led by a Chinese scientist has discovered that the ocean of Enceladus may be abundant in dissolved phosphates which could promote the origin and proliferation of potential microorganisms. The discovery fills a gap in the study of Enceladus’ water habitability and provides a scientific benchmark for future exploration of possible life on the moon.
The team is led by Hao Jihua, a researcher at the University of Science and Technology of China. The team published the research paper on the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences, an American journal, according to a report by Xinhua News Agency on Saturday.
As one of the main targets in the search for life in the solar system, Enceladus has an ocean of ice-covered water that erupts into space, which forms a plume that contains almost all the basic requirements of terrestrial life, according to observations made by the Cassini spacecraft. However, the bioessential element phosphorus remained to be found.
The international scientific community once thought that Enceladus, a small moon of Saturn, might be inhospitable to life due to its lack of phosphorus, an essential element for DNA, biofilms and the bones that make up living organisms.
The research team recently performed a geochemical modeling experiment that simulates the chemical environment of the ocean of Enceladus.
Models suggest that Enceladus’ ocean may be relatively rich in dissolved phosphorus, which means there is a greater possibility that Enceladus’ ocean is habitable, according to the research paper published September 19.
“Phosphorus can only be used by organisms if it is dissolved in water. The water on Enceladus is highly alkaline and oxygen-free compared to water on Earth. It’s kind of like ‘ soda,'” Hao said in the report.
The research team found that in this “soda” environment, the phosphorus-bearing rocks in Enceladus’ core could have dissolved a considerable amount of phosphorus into the ocean water over a period of 100,000 years.
The research paper noted that an ocean of liquid water could have existed for hundreds of millions to billions of years inside Enceladus. Therefore, the dissolution of phosphates and other minerals can be expected to have released considerable amounts of phosphorus into the ocean.