Discovery on Icy Moon of Saturn Has Scientists Talking

Dec 23, 2022

Enceladus might not seem a likely place to find life. It’s an icy moon of Saturn, after all. However, it was the talk of the American Geophysical Union’s annual meetings last week. Why? Phosphorus was found on it. It was beneath the tiny moon’s frozen ocean.   

“We knew that Enceladus had most of the elements … for life,” a scientist told ScienceNews. Her name is Morgan Cable. She works at the Jet Propulsion Lab in California. She said now that they've found phosphorus, Enceladus' ocean seems to have everything needed to support life. 

The new data comes from NASA’s unmanned Cassini probe. It burned up in Saturn’s atmosphere in 2017. But first, it sent enough data that scientists are still sifting through it all. Cassini looked at samples from Saturn’s rings. The probe found bits of sodium phosphate. It had been shot from geysers on Enceladus’ surface. Those geysers shoot out vapor and particles from the warmer salt ocean beneath the moon’s surface. Among the particles, scientists have found organic molecules and sulfur compounds. Now, they've also found phosphorus. These elements there are at a concentration thousands of times greater than in our own oceans.

That large amount does raise questions for some researchers. Yasuhito Sekine wrote, “If life exists (on) Enceladus, why (does) such abundance of chemical energy and nutrients remain?” He works at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. He guesses that there might not be any life on the moon. But Sekine also notes another possibility. Life on Enceladus might simply use phosphorus much more slowly than here on Earth.   

Photo by NASA courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 

Based on how it is used in the last sentence of the third paragraph, the word “concentration” means _______. (Common Core RI.5.4; RI.6.4)
a. very focused
b. the amount of a substance
c. mental effort
d. a close gathering
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