Where is the Enceladus Ocean? | Science for All

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The Hindu’s weekly Science for All newsletter explains all things Science, without the jargon.

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Enceladus is one of the moons of Saturn. Recently scientists have discovered that beneath its icy surface are oceans, or sub-surface oceans as they are called. Among the great discoveries of astrobiology in the last quarter century is that these kinds of oceans are common not only in our solar system but even other galaxies opening up new dimensions in the quest for finding extra terrestrial life.

Recently, a team of scientists discovered evidence for a key building block for life in the subsurface ocean of Enceladus. Their modelling suggests that this ocean should be relatively rich in dissolved phosphorus, an essential ingredient for life. These insights were gleaned from data generated by the space craft Cassini that orbited Saturn for nearly 13 years.

The Cassini spacecraft discovered Enceladus’s subsurface liquid water and analysed samples as plumes of ice grains and water vapor erupted into space from cracks in the moon’s icy surface.

The plume contains almost all the basic requirements of life as we know it and while the phosphorus has yet to be identified directly, there is now incontrovertible evidence for its availability in the ocean beneath the moon’s icy crust, the scientists claim.

Phosphorus in the form of phosphates is vital for all life on Earth. It is essential for the creation of DNA and RNA, energy-carrying molecules, cell membranes, bones and teeth in people and animals, and even the sea’s microbiome of plankton. 

The scientists performed thermodynamic and kinetic modelling that simulates the geochemistry of phosphorus based on insights from Cassini about the ocean-seafloor system on Enceladus. In the course of their research, they developed the most detailed geochemical model to date of how seafloor minerals dissolve into Enceladus’s ocean and predicted that phosphate minerals would be unusually soluble there.

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