Updated December 16th, 2023 at 23:56 IST

Element key for origin of life discovered on Saturn's Moon Enceladus, NASA announces

According to NASA, scientists have confirmed the presence of hydrogen cyanide in its oceans which serves as a fuel for organisms on Earth.

Harsh Vardhan
Saturn's Moon Enceladus. | Image:NASA

NASA scientists have found a key element necessary for the origin of life on one of Saturn's Moon. The Moon in question is Enceladus which is famous for spewing organic compounds into outer space.

According to NASA, scientists have confirmed the presence of hydrogen cyanide in its oceans which serves as a fuel for organisms here on Earth. Experts have long speculated that Enceladus' subsurface water could be habitable for micro-organisms.


More evidence for habitability on Enceladus 🪐

A study using data from @NASA’s Cassini mission has found evidence of a key ingredient for life – and a powerful source of chemical energy to fuel it – on Saturn’s icy moon.

What this means:

— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) December 14, 2023

The findings were possible because of the findings by Cassini which launched in October 1997 and ended with the spacecraft plunging into Saturn in September 2017.

Plumes from Enceladus photographed by Cassini on Nov. 30, 2010. Image: NASA/JPL

"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,” said Jonah Peter, lead author of the study which has been published in Nature Astronomy.

A doctoral student at Harvard University, Peter is accredited of performing a large part of the research while working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.


“Not only does Enceladus seem to meet the basic requirements for habitability, we now have an idea about how complex biomolecules could form there, and what sort of chemical pathways might be involved," Peter further said.

Explaining the importance of hydrogen cyanide, he said that it is one of the most important and "versatile" molecules which forms amino acids. According to existing theory, it was the formation of amino acids in water on Earth which led to the origin of single celled organism and its evolution into all other species.


Another theory says that methanogenesis, a metabolic process that produces methane, may have been critical in the origin of life on Earth. Interestingly, scientists looked at the combination of carbon dioxide, methane, and hydrogen in Enceladus' plume and concluded that it suggests the same process - methanogenesis.

"If methanogenesis is like a small watch battery, in terms of energy, then our results suggest the ocean of Enceladus might offer something more akin to a car battery, capable of providing a large amount of energy to any life that might be present,” co-author and JPL official Kevin Hand explained in an official statement.


While the experts admitted that they are a long way from confirming life on Enceladus, they said this new discovery will lay out chemical pathways to be tested in a lab. 


Published December 16th, 2023 at 23:56 IST

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