“Almost all the basic requirements of life as we know it” have been found on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, according to new data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. 

While one key ingredient – phosphorus – remains elusive, scientists say the evidence is growing that it’s likely to exist in great quantities in oceans beneath the moon’s icy surface. 

Cassini, launched in 1997, spent 13 years orbiting the gas giant before its destruction in 2017. Earlier analysis of its data has shown Enceladus, one of Saturn’s 82-plus moons, has an ice-covered ocean of water which sends plumes into space.

“Enceladus is one of the prime targets in humanity’s search for life in our solar system,” said Christopher Glein of the Southwest Research Institute in Texas.

“In the years since NASA’s Cassini spacecraft visited the Saturn system, we have been repeatedly blown away by the discoveries made possible by the collected data.”

As mentioned earlier, the plumes contain “almost all the basic requirements of life as we know it”, but phosphorus – essential in creating DNA and RNA, as well as bones, teeth and cell membranes – hasn’t been detected yet. But… 

“While the bioessential element phosphorus has yet to be identified directly, our team discovered evidence for its availability in the ocean beneath the moon’s icy crust,” said Glein.

The team did sophisticated modelling which found the underlying geochemistry” on Enceladus “has an elegant simplicity that makes the presence of dissolved phosphorus inevitable, reaching levels close to or even higher than those in modern Earth seawater.

“What this means for astrobiology is that we can be more confident than before that the ocean of Enceladus is habitable.”

But in the absence of a technologically advanced civilisation on the surface of the moon, there’s only one real way to find out for sure. 

“We need to get back to Enceladus to see if a habitable ocean is actually inhabited.”

The research was published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.