What is it about?

Phosphate is an essential nutrient for life as we know it. We have shown for the first time that the subsurface water ocean in Enceladus is expected to contain high levels of dissolved phosphate. This nutrient was previously thought to be too scarce to allow microbial activities in the Enceladus ocean. We have used state of the art models to demonstrate that phosphate could quickly build up to considerable levels in the ocean water through alteration of Enceladus's rocky core.

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Why is it important?

Enceladus is one of the prime targets in the search for life in the solar system. Observations made by the Cassini spacecraft show that this small moon of Saturn has an ice-covered water ocean that erupts into space, forming a plume that contains almost all of the basic requirements of terrestrial life. However, the bioessential element phosphorus has yet to be found. Here, we perform geochemical modeling, constrained by Cassini data, to predict how much phosphorus could be present in the Enceladus ocean. These models suggest that Enceladus’s ocean should be relatively rich in dissolved phosphorus. This means that there can now be greater confidence that the ocean of Enceladus is habitable.


We hope our prediction of high phosphorus availability could be tested by further analysis of Cassini data or measurements from future missions to Enceladus. The habitability of extraterrestrial oceans is an exciting field to work on in the next decades for me. It will be really great if we can send a lander to Enceladus and probe the ocean for any alien life signals.

Jihua Hao
University of Science and Technology of China

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Abundant phosphorus expected for possible life in Enceladus’s ocean, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, September 2022, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2201388119.
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