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Nasa study finds life-sparking energy source on Saturn’s icy moon

A new study shows that one of Saturn's icy moons, Enceladus, has a key ingredient for life and a source of energy to fuel it

Water from the subsurface ocean of Saturn’s moon Enceladus sprays from huge fissures out into space.
Water from the subsurface ocean of Saturn’s moon Enceladus sprays from huge fissures out into space. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

In a new discovery, data collected from Nasa’s Cassini space mission to Saturn shows that one of its icy moons – Enceladus – has a key ingredient for life and a supercharged energy source to fuel it.

The study, published in the journal Nature Astronomy, shows that there may be much more chemical energy inside Saturn’s moon Enceladus than previously thought. Previously, scientists knew about the presence of ice grains and water vapour in the tiny moon, which is rich with organic compounds. Now, scientists have found hydrogen cyanide, a molecule essential for the origin of life.

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According to Nasa’s press statement, the researchers have also discovered evidence that the ocean, located below the moon’s icy outer shell, is an important source of chemical energy. This energy source is in the form of several organic compounds, some of which, are key for the life force of organisms on Earth.

“Our work provides further evidence that Enceladus is host to some of the most important molecules for both creating the building blocks of life and for sustaining that life through metabolic reactions,” lead author Jonah Peter explained in the statement. The new data shows that Enceladus seems to meet the basic requirements for habitability, and that complex biomolecules could form on the icy moon.

The discovery of hydrogen cyanide was particularly exciting, Peter said in the statement. “It’s the starting point for most theories on the origin of life,” he added. Formation of life requires amino acids and hydrogen cyanide is a key molecule required to form these building blocks. In the paper, the study authors refer to hydrogen cyanide as ‘the Swiss army knife of amino acid precursors’.

Back in 2017, scientists found evidence that the moon could help sustain life in its ocean. They identified a combination of carbon dioxide, methane, and hydrogen, which indicates methanogenesis, a metabolic process that produces methane—essential for life on Earth. Now, the researchers have found several organic compounds that were oxidized, suggesting that there are many chemical pathways that could sustain life.

While this a step forward, scientists still have a long way to go from answering whether life could originate on Enceladus. 

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