The Cassini spacecraft studied the plumes released by Saturn’s moon Enceladus, and scientists discovered interesting molecules, including hydrogen cyanide, which is believed to be key to the formation of amino acids needed to create proteins, the main components of life. The study was published in Nature Astronomy.
Scientists analyzed the chemical composition of the plumes and concluded that Enceladus may have more chemical energy than previously thought. This is due to the formation of molecules associated with oxidation, that is, a large amount of chemical energy is released.
JPL’s Kevin Hand emphasized that Enceladus’ chemically-energized ocean could support life that could potentially use that energy to sustain itself.
“The discovery of hydrogen cyanide was especially exciting because it is the starting point for most theories about the origin of life,” said lead author John Peter of Harvard University, formerly of NASA (JPL).
“The more we tried to address gaps in our results by testing alternative models, the stronger the evidence became. Eventually, it became clear that there was no way to correlate the composition of the plume without including hydrogen cyanide.”
The conditions created on Enceladus provide an opportunity to test in the laboratory the accuracy of the conditions under which the detected molecules are formed and to evaluate their role in the search for life.
If the study results are confirmed, it could mean that Enceladus not only meets the basic requirements for habitability, but also offers favorable conditions for the emergence and maintenance of life.
“Our work provides further evidence that Enceladus contains some of the most important molecules for both creating the building blocks of life and maintaining that life through metabolic reactions,” Peter said.
“Not only does Enceladus appear to meet the basic requirements for habitability, but we now have an idea of how complex biomolecules might be formed there and what chemical processes might be involved.”